Employees at an East Elmhurst car wash joined a union on Saturday, becoming the first in the city in this industry to do so, organizers said.
Workers at Astoria Car Wash & Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube, who are mostly minorities, voted 21 to 5 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. This is the first victory in a six-month campaign to unionize car wash workers and regulate low, and illegally low, wages.
A worker at the car wash said he was happy about unionizing, but didn’t want to stop to talk because he wasn’t sure how his boss was taking it.
There are 200 car washes in New York City and 5,000 low-wage employees.
“In this city, workers will no longer stay silent in the face of abuse, wage theft and mistreatment,” said Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York.
The New York campaign, a joint effort between Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change and supported by the RWDSU, was launched earlier this year to combat mistreatment in the car wash industry, according to the union.
“The RWDSU has long been dedicated to improving the lives of the immigrant worker,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. “Their courage in standing up for themselves sends a powerful message to other car washes and low-wage workers throughout New York City.”
A WASH New York survey of 89 workers at 29 different car washes found that more than 71 percent of the workers put in at least 60 hours a week — and some worked 105 hours a week. Despite the long hours, 75 percent of these workers didn’t get overtime pay for exceeding 40 hours. When workers did get overtime pay, it was often less than the legally mandated rate of time-and-a-half.
Some 66 percent of the workers said they often received less that the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Only five workers said they were paid the difference to make minimum wage if their earnings with tips were less than the legal rate.
“I expect this vote will be the first of many,” said Jon Kest, executive director of the New York Communities for Change.
According to RWDSU Organizer Joseph Dorismond, who helped lead the effort at Hi-Tek, there are many other car wash employees he is working with who would like to join.