Queens Car Washers First to Unionize

On Sept. 8, workers at Hi-Tek Car Wash & Lube voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, becoming the first time car wash workers outside of Los Angeles vote to unionize, according to the immigrant advocate group Make the Road New York. El Diario/La Prensa‘s Gloria Medina interviewed some of the car washers in the article below, though not all were thrilled with the news. The article has been translated from Spanish.

Workers at Hi-Tek Car Wash & Lube in Queens are the first car washers, out of 5,000 in New York City, to join a union. (Photo by Saundi Wilson/EDLP)

Workers at a Queens car wash company are celebrating the benefits they have gained after voting to join a union that they hope will improve their working conditions.

“It’s a tremendous victory,” said Heriberto Hernández, who has been washing cars since December 2011. Hernández was referring to the 21 to 5 vote to join a union that will be able to defend the employees’ rights. The voting took place over the weekend. Now, the workers are members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“So far, they still haven’t raised our salaries. They actually cut back our hours and that’s why people are upset, but everything carries a risk. We’re now waiting for negotiations to finalize so we can reap the benefits,” said Hernández.

According to Hernández, who works five days a week, the workers are first seeking a wage increase, as well as a schedule and lunch break that bosses will respect. “Later on we’ll have vacations, sick days, and health insurance.”

As a result of joining RWDSU, Gary Pinkus, the owner of the car wash company Hi-Tek Car Wash & Lube Inc., will have to respect the workers’ rights, which include pay minimum wage, offer a lunch break, pay at a rate of time and a half for overtime, and better treatment, among others.

“We’re happy that we took the time and effort to join a union,” said Josué Gómez, a Colombian man who has been working as a mechanic at Hi-Tek Car Wash & Lube, Inc., in Elmhurst, Queens since 1989.

Although a manager at the company wouldn’t allow employees to comment, an employee named Omar Gómez said the workers had “won a victory,” not only in New York but on the national level.

“Before, we worked long hours. Now I work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. They gave us a uniform and are treating us better. Now when they ask us to do things, they say ‘please’ and they talk to us politely.  Before, they used to shout at us, and told us that whoever didn’t like the job should go home,” said Gómez, who has been lubricating cars and changing oil for 21 years.

But not all the workers agree. Mario Velázquez, a Mexican man who has been working at the company for five years, is one of them.

“The union hurts us more. Expenses are higher now because they’re giving us less hours, we have to pay them to cash our checks, and we also have to pay membership fees,” said Velázquez. “People complain that they treat us badly, but if you aren’t doing your job well and your clients tell the boss, it makes sense for the boss to send you home.”

Six months ago, the employees began participating in a campaign called “WASH New York” lead by the nonprofit Make the Road New York, through which they sought better working conditions.

“They didn’t know they had rights. Now they have benefits,” said Modesta Toribio, an organizer with Make the Road New York. The next step is for the union to negotiate a contract of mutual consent with the owner so that employees receive other benefits like vacation days, sick days, gloves, and other equipment they need to work, especially in the winter.

“It’s a huge achievement. This will change employees’ lives and improve conditions in the workplace,” said Tara Martin, communications director at RWDSU. She hopes that the union will win a “fair” contract for the workers. “This is the beginning of a reform in the car wash industry, not just in New York, but across the country.”

Martin said that according to data from a report by the campaign WASH New York, there are an estimated 5,000 employees in the car wash industry in New York City, Westchester and Long Island.

Pinkus did not return calls seeking for comments.

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