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East Elmhurst car washers form city’s first union

Photo by Joe Anuta
By Joe Anuta

Workers at an East Elmhurst car wash celebrated a historic contract this week after becoming the first unionized car wash east of Los Angeles.

The roughly 30 workers scored a set of guarantees designed to increase pay, job security and benefits at Hi-Tek Car Wash and Lube, at 83-03 24th Ave. The workers are now part of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which characterized the contract as merely the first step into the car wash field.

“Workers in this industry deal with some pretty tough conditions, and they need to have a voice,” said David Mertz, assistant to the president of the union.

Car wash workers are often subject to low wages, erratic or long hours and competition from part-time workers, he said. In addition many are immigrants, some who came here illegally, which can lead certain car wash owners to take advantage and treat them poorly.

Under the new contract with owner Gary Pinkus, who inked the accord after about nine months of negotiations, the workers will have many benefits set in writing.

Their pay, which falls under a unique category since they rely on tips, will incrementally increase from at least $7.25 now to at least $9.18 an hour by January 2017.

They will also receive guaranteed schedules, limited incursion of part-time employees, overtime and hours shared fairly, paid sick and vacation days and be allowed unpaid leave of up to four weeks to visit family in other countries, according to Mertz.

The contract was officially implemented Monday, and while many of the workers were happy they had more rights and changes to their working conditions, both the washers and the owner are waiting to see how it plays out.

“It’s hard to say, we just got involved in this,” Pinkus said of how the contract will affect his business. “We hope employees will do a much better job and stick to the work because they have benefits.”

Elmhurst resident Feliberto Jimenez has worked at the wash since 1999 and said he and other workers want to see how the new contract will affect them.

“I believe it will make a change,” he said through a translator.

The union is already in talks with other locations around the city to follow suit, but it is often difficult to get workers to stand up to their bosses, Mertz said, since federal laws designed to punish business owners who discriminate against unionizing employees are often ignored.

“Our laws are not adequate to protect workers who are trying to organize,” he said.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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