Car Wash Workers Vote for RWDSU, Second Win in Drive to Organize in NYC

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By Alicia Biggs

Members of a proposed bargaining unit comprised of 33 car wash workers employed at Webster Car Wash in Bronx, N.Y., have voted for representation by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, a National Labor Relations Board representative said Oct. 22.

In an NLRB-supervised election conducted Oct. 20, cashiers and car wash workers voted 22-5 for representation by RWDSU, NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland said.

RWDSU is an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“The RWDSU has long been dedicated to improving the lives of low-wage workers, and we are proud of the employees at Webster, who have taken a significant step toward improving their jobs and their lives by voting to join the union today,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a Oct. 22 statement. “Across the city, car wash workers are standing up, speaking out and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect. This is a building movement.”

Second Car Wash to Unionize in NYC
Webster Car Wash is only the second unionized car wash in New York City and in the Northeast. Last month, workers at Astoria Car Wash & Hi-Tek Lube voted to join RWDSU, the first organizing win in the drive for New York car wash workers (179 DLR A-11, 9/14/12). The votes come about seven months after the union joined with two advocacy groups in a drive to improve working conditions at car washes in the city (44 DLR A-2, 3/6/12).

In the WASH-NY (Workers Aligned for a Sustainable and Healthy New York) campaign, RWDSU and the groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change have targeted an industry that they said has more than 200 car washes and 5,000 employees in the city and “exploits its workforce with wages that are low and too often illegal.”

A survey conducted for the campaign found that 75 percent of New York car wash workers were not paid overtime for working more than 40 hours a week. Most of the facilities are individually owned small businesses, the survey found.

Webster Car Wash is owned by John Lage, the largest car wash owner in New York City. RWDSU said Lage owns 23 car washes in the metropolitan area, and Lage is under investigation by the New York State Attorney General's office for alleged wage and hour violations. In 2009, Lage was forced to pay $3.4 million to workers for back pay and damages to resolve a lawsuit filed by the Labor Department alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (124 DLR A-12, 7/1/09).

“We are proud of the workers at Webster Car Wash for standing up against their employer,” said Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change. “John Lage is a giant of the New York City car wash industry, whose bad practices in the past are perfect proof that car wash workers need to be organized to protect themselves against mistreatment.”

According to RWDSU organizer Joseph Dorismond, who helped lead the organizing effort at both Webster Car Wash and Hi-Tek Car Wash, workers at the car wash are not alone in their efforts to remake the industry.

“Car wash workers are declaring loud and clear that the old way of doing business at these establishments is over,” Dorismond said. “Their courage in standing up for themselves sends a powerful message to other car wash and low wage workers throughout New York City: You can fight back against poor wages and working conditions, and you can win by joining the RWDSU.”

The New York drive follows union gains in organizing car wash workers in Los Angeles, where the United Steelworkers has negotiated pioneering collective bargaining agreements with three employers in a similar community-union campaign (36 DLR A-9, 2/23/12).

A representative from Webster Car Wash could not be reached for comment Oct. 22.

By Alicia Biggs

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