Carwash Workers in New York City Plan Union Drive
At a carwash in an industrial patch of Astoria, Queens, Adan Nicolas, a Mexican immigrant, is preparing to open the newest front in New York City’s labor battles.
His bosses have often paid him and the other carwash workers less than minimum wage and have cheated them on overtime pay, Mr. Nicolas said. The workers, he said, are not provided with protective gear but are forced to use caustic cleaners that burn their eyes and noses.
Community organizers say these kinds of violations are rampant among local carwashes.
So for the past several weeks, under the tutelage of immigrants’ advocates, Mr. Nicolas, 31, has been briefing his colleagues in rudimentary labor law and the language of organizing. Out of the sight of bosses, similar conversations have been unfolding at other carwashes around New York City.
“We’re all ready to fight for our rights and have a dignified place to work, and not to be abused like we are today,” Mr. Nicolas said.
On Tuesday, a coalition of community and labor organizations plans to introduce a citywide campaign to reform the carwash industry. The union advocates, in turn, hope to use the campaign to unionize carwash workers across the city, most of whom are immigrants.
“This is a real partnership between community organizations and organized labor to try to tackle these problematic working conditions,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group that is leading the coalition with New York Communities for Change, another advocacy group, and support from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
A similar campaign in Los Angeles has resulted in collective bargaining agreements between at least three carwash companies and their workers. Two of the deals were completed last month.
The campaign in New York faces many challenges. Carwash workers — a population of about 1,600, by the coalition’s estimates — are scattered across about 200 locations, many of which are under individual ownership. Each company would require a separate organizing effort.
Many of the workers are illegal immigrants who might be unwilling to speak out for fear of being fired or drawing the attention of the immigration authorities.
Carwash managers and owners said in interviews that they were paying and treating their employees fairly, and vowed to resist unionizing efforts.
“We’re going by the law,” said the manager at Queensboro Car Wash in Long Island City, who would not give his name.
He added that while he did not believe that unionizing was necessary at his car wash, he supported it at other ones “that aren’t paying what they should to the guys.”
The organizing coalition, called Wash New York, interviewed 89 carwash workers at dozens of carwashes around New York City and found that about two-thirds of them said at times they made less than the state-mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
The typical schedule was at least a 60-hour workweek, but a majority received no overtime pay above 40 hours, as required by law. Those who received overtime pay often made less than the mandated rate of time-and-a-half, the coalition said. Rest and lunch breaks were fleeting and unpaid, many said.
Not a single worker in the survey reported receiving paid sick days, and only one said he had been offered a health care plan, the organizers said.
Most of the workers said they were not given proper protective equipment and training to handle the caustic cleaning products used at carwashes. Some workers described using chemicals that burned holes in their clothing, the organizers said.
Mr. Nicolas, the carwash worker, said his bosses were unsympathetic to these grievances.
He requested that the name of the car wash where he works not be disclosed before the campaign starts.
Mr. Nicolas confessed to feeling “a bit of fear” about the possible repercussions, including his firing, but added: “It’s worth it because we’re suffering so much injustice.”
Wash New York’s assessment of the industry dovetails with the findings of a state investigation in 2008.
Sixty inspectors visited 84 carwashes across the state and reported $6.5 million in underpayments to 1,380 workers.
About 80 percent of the carwashes in New York City had violated minimum wage and overtime laws, the officials found.
The state labor commissioner at the time, M. Patricia Smith, called the industry “a disgrace” and vowed to “change the culture” of it.
That investigation led to millions of dollars in fines, litigation and vows of compliance by owners.
In 2010, the department announced a settlement of nearly $2 million with the operators of a carwash in Upper Manhattan that had failed to pay minimum and overtime wages.
A spokesman for the department said investigators were currently pressing wage-violation cases against other carwashes.
The coalition plans to use Tuesday’s announcement to disclose its unionizing goals to the carwashes.
But managers and owners informed of the campaign said they would resist it, in part because collective bargaining agreements would most likely translate into higher prices for customers and, they feared, harm their business.
“We would never sign with the union,” said the manager at Whitestone Car Wash in Queens, who would give only his first name, John. “I like things the way they are.”