Car Wash Employees Demand Dignified Salaries

Protesters are demanding a fair contract and better working conditions. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Protesters are demanding a fair contract and better working conditions. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

For eight years, 53-year-old Mexican Ángel Rebollero literally worked until he bled at the Vegas Auto Spa car wash in Park Slope. The corrosive detergent used there to wash cars caused severe damage to the worker’s health. Rebolledo worked up to 90 hours per week for $4.50 per hour.

“The gases are so irritating that they made my nose bleed,” Rebollero told El Diario. “To the owner, we are disposable laborers. We work in modern day slavery conditions.”

The “carwasher” said that, although the workers are exposed to chemicals and acids, their employer does not provide safety equipment or medical coverage. Other employees said that they too suffered eye, throat and skin irritation.

Rebollero and seven other fellow workers went on strike on Nov. 20, after the owner of the company, Marat Leshehinsky, refused to negotiate a fair contract, compensate them for unpaid salaries and offer them a safe workplace. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), who represent the workers, collected $10,000 to help them with their living expenses while the labor dispute lasts.

In October, the group of car washers had filed a $600,000 lawsuit against Leshehinsky. According to activists and union leaders, the sum could increase to up to a million.

“This is a big battle, but we won’t give up until our human and labor rights are recognized,” said Luis Fernando Calel, 21, a Guatemala-born worker involved in the dispute. “We are not asking for a favor; this is the law.” Calel said that their employer schedules 70- to 90-hour work weeks and pays below minimum wage.

The morning of March 4, around 200 demonstrators – including some elected officials – gathered at the Kolot Chayeinu Synagogue located at 1012 Eighth Ave. in Brooklyn to demand justice. They marched 10 blocks to the car wash site on Seventh Avenue and 19th Street.

“I join your protest because I want labor rights in New York to be respected too,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who attended the demonstration. The organizations New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York also showed solidarity with the workers.

Council members Carlos Menchaca and Brad Lander joined the car washers’ struggle by participating in an act of civil disobedience in front of Vegas Auto Spa. The public officials and six other activists and community organizers, representing the eight workers who are demanding fair and dignified working conditions, were voluntarily arrested. The group blocked traffic on 19th Street and displayed a white and red banner with the words “Justice for Carwashers.”

“This is the power of the people,” said Menchaca before getting arrested. “No one is above the law. This is a forceful message for employers who apply abusive measures.”

Stephen Hans, Leshehinsky’s lawyer, told El Diario via email that “this is a small business with nine employees who have been paid all their hourly wages but now finds itself the target of an international union,” referring to the RWDSU.

“This is just an example of the growing cost of doing business in this city, which makes it impossible for small companies to survive and grow,” said Hans.

In January, Vegas Auto Spa employees voted unanimously to form a union in an election moderated by the National Labor Relations Board. Still, according to the workers, the owner refuses to recognize their affiliation.

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