Car Washers Claim Victory In Fight For Better Working Conditions

SLS Car Wash workers were able to unionize thanks to a vote of 35 in favor out of a total of 40 employees. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario)

SLS Car Wash workers were able to unionize thanks to a vote of 35 in favor out of a total of 40 employees. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario)

A torrential rain could not dissipate the jubilant cheer of the car wash workers as they celebrated another victory in their fight for better working conditions. Employees of SLS Car Wash, in Bushwick, voted overwhelmingly to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) with 35 votes in favor out of 40 employees.

Organizers asked the owner of the establishment to respect the workers’ decision, and contract negotiations are expected to begin in the next few days.

Employees are seeking a contract that guarantees minimum hourly wages and overtime pay, among other protections. The management of SLS Car Wash declined to comment.

After two years of struggle, Honduras native Rigoberto Quintero and his fellow workers were able to make their workplace, also known as Atlantis Wash & Lube, the 11th car wash in the city to join the RWDSU.

Union president Stuart Appelbaum explained in a press conference that, so far, nine car wash establishments in New York have signed contracts.

“This is a triumph for the employees at SLS Car Wash but also a victory for all workers in the industry. It is a great step in a fight that gets stronger every day,” said Appelbaum.

Quintero, a 46-year-old Brooklyn resident, said that their first attempt to organize was thwarted two years ago. Back then, fear and language barriers prevented the workers from undertaking a fight for labor justice.

Nevertheless, activists at community organizations New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and Make the Road New York (MRNY) did not falter in their effort to create a front against the abuse.

“No worker deserves to be humiliated for putting bread on the table for his family,” said Quintero as he stood in front of SLS Car Wash. “We are human beings, not money-making machines at the expense of our dignity.”

Quintero has worked the night shift at the car wash for two years. Still, his earnings barely allow him to pay for rent, so he also has a construction job during the day.

“I was tired of working until my bones ached, but I was even more tired of having my rights stepped on,” said the father of six.

According to NYCC Labor Director Rocío Valerio, the group of workers at SLS Car Wash is one of the most diverse in the city.

“Language barriers were a challenge because we were unable to reach some of the African workers. Still, it is a great victory that belongs to all of them,” said Valerio. “Even though car wash owners are trying to squash the efforts of the workers, triumphs such as this one are encouraging other workers to raise their voices.”

Activists estimate that there are close to 200 car wash businesses in the city, employing nearly 5,000 workers. Of them, 80 percent are Latino.

Alongside the RWDSU, organizations such as the NYCC and MRNY have been advocating on behalf of the workers for the past four years as part of a campaign to regulate the industry.

Ever since the campaign was launched, nine car wash establishments in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have obtained contracts providing basic protections for carwasheros.

Despite the movement’s success, activists said that many employees still make as little as $1.95 per hour at some of these establishments. Wage theft and unsafe working conditions, as well as lack of protection and safety training in chemicals and corrosive detergent handling, continue to be a serious problem.

A law is pending

Last summer, the City Council approved legislation to require all car wash businesses in the five boroughs to obtain a license, the first bill of its kind seeking to regulate the industry. Under this law, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) would have the authority to deny, revoke or suspend licenses due to labor or environmental violations.

Still, the piece of legislation, introduced by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, is facing the opposition of the Association of Car Wash Owners, a coalition formed by the proprietors of 90 of these businesses.

“We need government regulation,” said Valerio. “The city’s supervision is crucial in stopping labor abuse in this industry.”

The owners’ coalition filed a lawsuit in November stating that non-unionized businesses would have to post a $150,000 surety bond before applying for a license, compared to the $30,000 that unionized businesses would pay.

The DCA is expected to divulge the new regulations in the next few weeks. Once these are published, business owners will present additional documentation to support their lawsuit as necessary. The city will then have four weeks to respond before the case is evaluated by a judge.

The bill introduced by Mark-Viverito is similar to a law currently in force in the state of California.

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