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“Washeros” Momentum Builds – Two More Shops Organize

"Washeros" Momentum Builds – Two More Shops Organize

November 23, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

Workers at two more NYC car washes tired of having their pay jerked around have voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) this week – bringing the total number of newly-unionized shops across the city to four. And more are on the way.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum says the old way of doing business at NYC car washes is over.

"Car wash workers across the city have had enough and are fighting back against abusive conditions,” Appelbaum said. “The RWDSU is proud of these workers and will continue to support them – whether it be at the negotiation table or the picket line — as they stand up for a better future for their families. They deserve better and they know that the only way things are going to get better is to fight back against poor wages and working conditions through a union contract.”

Notorious car wash mogul John Lage owns both the Lage Car Wash in Soho and the Sutphin Car Wash in Jamaica where workers have now decided that securing a union contract is the best way to obtain better pay and improved working conditions.

"These elections are very important for us because we deserve a fair salary, job security, and other benefits," said Guatemalan "washeros" and four-year Sutphin Car Wash veteran Santos Lopez. "With a union, they will treat us with respect and dignity. I'm very happy for myself and my co-workers because of the changes we think will happen at our workplace."

Lage is the biggest car wash operator in New York City with 23 locations spread throughout the metropolitan area. In 2009, he was forced to pay workers $3.5 million in back pay damages following a federal lawsuit. The New York Attorney General's office is now currently investigating Lage for still further wage-and-hour violations.

The effort to organize workers at Lage Car Wash and Sutphin Car Wash was part of  the nine-month Wash NY campaign – a coalition of grassroots groups and organized labor committed to cleaning up the 200 previously non-unionized car washes located throughout the city where workers are routinely subjected to poor working conditions and withheld pay.

"Washeros" at Hi-Tek Car Wash in Astoria and Webster Car Wash in the Bronx recently made history by becoming the first car washes in NYC to organize. Earlier this month, workers at Sunny Day Car Wash, also The Bronx, went out on strike in an effort to enforce their rights and were subsequently fired.

The operator of that establishment has reportedly paid workers half of the back pay the striking employees say they are owed. Workers continue to picket the site.

"Momentum is building in this industry," said Deborah Axt, co-executive director for Make the Road New York. "Last week, car wash workers at Sunny Day in the Bronx spontaneously went on strike, and now Sutphin and LMC Soho workers join the workers at the Webster car wash, making three John Lage-owned car washes in one month that have voted to unionize. These workers had to face down threats and intimidation just to make the basic legally guaranteed choice to join a union. That reality is depressing. But the courage they have shown tells us all that their time has come."

Los Angeles was the first city in the nation to successfully organize car wash workers. Efforts are now underway to organize workers in Chicago as well. RWDSU Director of Communications Tara Martin says that these victories are injecting much needed life into the entire labor movement.

"LA, NY and Chicago are just the tip of the iceberg" Martin told LaborPress.

The car wash industry in NY has long been accused of exploiting workers. In 2008, New York state investigators found widespread labor law violations in the car wash industry, including $6.5 million in underpayments to 1,380 workers. A recent WASH New York survey of 89 workers at 29 different car washes found that more than 71% of the workers put in at least 60 hours a week – and some worked 105 hours a week. Nearly 75% of the workers didn’t get overtime pay for exceeding 40 hours.

“Car Wash kingpin John Lage is notorious for his bad labor practices," said Jonathan Westin, director of organizing for New York Communities for Change. "Today, he received a clear message that car wash workers throughout NYC will no longer tolerate the mistreatment that has been his standard practice for too long. Today, the workers showed they are ready to fight back and we at NYCC couldn't be prouder.”

NYCC's Olivia Leier says that working conditions in the car wash industry have been horrible for decades.

"Government enforcement efforts have failed to improve things, so workers are taking things into their own hands," Leier said. "Organizing energy has become contagious in the industry, and the campaign will continue to support the rising momentum with legislation, as well as fights at many individual employers whose workers have demanded union recognition and contracts."

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