East, West Coast carwash workers organize, fight for respect

The CLEAN Carwash Campaign announced that two more Los Angeles carwashes have signed union contracts making them the second and third businesses in the area to become union carwashes. Meanwhile in New York City, members of  Wash New York, a carwash organizing coalition, on Tuesday released a report documenting the unjust working conditions at the city’s carwashes and announced a union organizing campaign among fellow carwash workers.

In Los Angeles , carwash workers who are members of United Steelworkers Local 675, signed contracts with Vermont Car Wash and Navas Car Wash. The new contracts include a 2 percent pay raise with a channel opened for negotiating further pay raises, an arbitration process for settling grievances, protections against unfair termination, and a procedure to ensure fair work scheduling.

The  CLEAN Carwash Campaign is a joint effort of the Community, Labor, and Environmental Action Network and the United Steelworkers.

Speaking at a media conference announcing the new contracts, Manuel Martinez, a Vermont Car Wash worker called the new contracts a “triumph” and urged other carwash workers to join the union. Speaking in Spanish, Martinez said, “We were treated badly,” but we stood up and won, you can do the same.

In New York, a similar campaign has just gotten off the ground. On Tuesday at a rally and news conference, Wash New York  released a report on the results of survey that it conducted among carwash workers. The report found that 66 percent of those surveyed were at times paid less than the minimum wage, 70 percent were on the job for at least 60 hours a week, and 75 percent received no overtime after working more than 40 hours a week.

“Besides receiving chronically low pay, the largely immigrant work force staffing New York City’s car washes toil away on a job that subjects employees to extreme working conditions and little control over their own lives,” reads the report entitled Carwash Workers Face Low Pay, Offensive Conditions, and Poor Treatment.

The New York Times reports that Wash New York’s findings are similar to those of a 2008 investigation conducted by the State of New York. The investigation of 84 New York City car washes found a total of $6.5 million in under payments to 1,380 workers resulting from violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. “The state labor commissioner at the time, M. Patricia Smith, called the industry ‘a disgrace’ and vowed to ‘change the culture’ of it,” reports the Times.

“Washing cars, the boss makes us work long hours, from 7 in the morning until 7 o’clock at night, for $5.50 an hour plus tips,” said David de la Cruz Pérez, a worker at Sutphin Boulevard Car Wash during the rally. “They yell at us, they disrespect us, and they treat us as if we were not even human beings. Now we know what our rights are and we want to be respected. We have to be united and put a stop to these abuses and recuperate our dignity.”

Wash New York is a coalition of Make the Road New York, an immigrant rights group, New York Communities for Change, a social and economic justice community organization, and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

“The RWDSU is proud to support this campaign.” said Stuart Applebaum, president of RWDSU. “And we are proud to lead the fight to bring a union voice to these workers. We have long fought to improve the lives of immigrant workers and raise standards in low-wage industries like poultry, food-processing, and retail where many immigrants are employed.”

Wash New York has been training carwash workers to be on-the-job union organizers, who can tell other workers about their rights and explain how a union can improve their working conditions and end the wage theft that most endure.

“We’re ready to fight for our rights and have a dignified place to work and not be abused like we are today,” said Adan Nicolas, a carwash worker and newly trained organizer to the New York Times.


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