By Bill Parry
Carwasheros is a term that entered the borough lexicon in 2012 when a group of undocumented immigrant workers at an East Elmhurst car wash fought and won the right to organize and eventually become the first shop to sign a union contract east of Los Angeles, Calif.
Now workers and officials of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union have signed a new, three-year contract with the owners of Hi-Tek Car Wash and Lube, located at 83-03 254th Ave., that provides solid wage increases, strong health and safety protections, and additional personal days and a holiday bonus.
“This ground-breaking agreement proves that car washes can survive and prosper in this city while respecting the rights of their employees under a union contract,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. “We look forward to reaching agreements with all other unionized shops as their contract renewals come up.”
In addition to the wage increase in each year, and two additional personal days, the new contract contains strong health and safety language and gives the union the right to conduct annual safety inspections to ensure that the workers have adequate training and proper equipment to protect themselves against potentially harmful chemicals. Hi-Tek worker Efren Gonzalez said he and his colleagues demonstrated what can happen when workers stand up for their rights – especially at a time when unions may face a hostile political environment.
“Because of our unity and perserverance we were able to get guaranteed wage increases, bonuses, personal days and stronger health safety language in our contract,” Gonzalez said. “Now the owner has to pay us for the time in training on chemical handling provided by our union. And most importantly, we were able to maintain the respect that we always deserved.”
The Car Wash Campaign, an effort by Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change and the RWDSU, has been fighting on behalf of car wash workers across the city for more than four years. In that time, 10 shops have won contracts which provide for wage increases and broad worker and job protections.
“Carwasheros, who have been exploited for far too long, continue to fight for better conditions. They have won additional protections and much needed paid time off,” said Rocio Valerio, the WASH-NY campaign coordinator and Deputy Director of New York Communities for Change. “This is an industry that is rampant with wage theft, no sick days, no vacation and sub-minimum wages. The carwasheros at Hi-Tek have a job with dignity and respect.”
The Car Wash Campaign also led the fight for the Car Wash Accountability Law, which is designed to require car washes to be licensed and post a surety bond to combat wage and hour violations and wage theft that has been rampant in the industry for years.
“We congratulate these brave workers who were the first to win a contract and are now the first to win a strong, three-year extension,” Make the Road New York Co-executive Director Deborah Axt said. “This shows what workers can achieve when they band together to fight for good jobs and fairness in the workplace.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr