April 18, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
New York City’s carwasheros celebrated a string of organizing victories and a legal settlement for almost $4 million April 16, joined by union leaders, community groups, and five of the city’s top elected officials.
More than 200 people packed the library at Gutman Community College in Midtown, women in orange New York Communities for Change sweatshirts and red Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union caps, children eating chicken and rice and beans, a middle-aged man with a round Diego Maradona face, a quiet preteen girl in a purple parka, two restless boys with close-cropped hair skittering in the aisles, most more comfortable in Spanish than in English.
They drummed on joint-compound buckets to amplify their applause, bopped their heads to the ’70s movie theme “Car Wash,” and sang along with Jose Linares’ corrido-style anthem “Vale la Pena” (It Is Worth It).
“What we found in the early days of the campaign was shocking,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum told the crowd. “People working for 60, 70 hours a week or more. Many workers did not get the proper equipment to protect themselves from the chemicals they have to use. And by proper equipment I mean even just a pair of decent gloves and goggles.”
But working with the RWDSU, Make the Road New York, and New York Communities for Change, he added, the carwasheros have won eight out of eight union elections and gotten contracts at six locations—many of them getting their first raises ever.
“Soy un amigo de los carwasheros,” Mayor Bill de Blasio declared in halting Spanish, calling their efforts part of a larger struggle against inequality. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the campaign showed workers “should not be afraid to try to organize,” and that the Council will hold hearings on the Car Wash Accountability Act next month.
“Wage theft is like car theft. It’s theft,” said state Attorney General Eric Schneider, who last month announced a settlement in which car-wash owner John Lage agreed to pay $3.9 million in back wages, unemployment benefits, and workers’ compensation.
One of the beneficiaries will be Juan Carlos Rivera, a 28-year-old immigrant from western El Salvador who works at Lage’s Webster Car Wash in the Bronx. When he started as a carwashero in 2006, he said through an interpreter, he made $3 an hour plus tips—well below minimum wage, as the tips usually came out to $10-20 for a shift of up to 12 hours. The union contract brought him above minimum wage, giving him a raise from $5.50 to $7.25 plus tips. It also saved his job, as he was one of the workers transferred to Webster when Lage closed his Soho car wash last year.
As Rivera spoke, the crowd was singing along with Jose Linares for a second time. “Vale la pena luchar hasta al final y asi tener el respeto que tu mereces como empleado, lavando coches en un car wash.” It is worth it to struggle to the end to get the respect you deserve as an employee, washing cars in a car wash.