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More car wash workers vote to join RWDSU

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 6/6/2013, 11:24 a.m.

The demand for decent wages and safer working condition continues for car wash workers in New York City.

A month after employees at two car washes--Webster Car Wash in the Bronx and Astoria Car Wash and Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube in Queens--voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)--and several weeks after the Sunday Day Car Wash strike began--employees from two more car washes voted to join the union last Wednesday: the Lage Car Wash in Soho and the Sutphin Car Wash in Jamaica, Queens.

John Lage, who owns both car washes, was forced to pay $3.4 million in back pay and damages to workers in 2009 after a federal lawsuit. Needless to say, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum was pleased with the recent news.

"The old way of doing business at these establishments is over. Car wash workers across the city have had enough and are fighting back against abusive conditions," said Appelbaum in a statement. "The RWDSU is proud of these workers and will continue to support them, whether it be at the negotiation table or the picket line, as they stand up for a better future for their families. They deserve better, and they know that the only way things are going to get better is to fight back against poor wages and working conditions through a union contract."

"Car wash kingpin John Lage is notorious for his bad labor practices," added New York Communities for Change Director of Organizing Jonathan Westin. "Today, he received a clear message that car wash workers throughout New York City will no longer tolerate the mistreatment that has been his standard practice for too long. Today, the workers showed they are ready to fight back, and we at New York Communities for Change couldn't be prouder."

The recent breakout of organized car wash employees could be directly attributed to the Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change's WASH New York campaign that RWDSU has lent support to. According to WASH New York, there are around 200 car washes in New York City, with about 5,000 employees. Most of these employees are immigrants who are paid low wages and usually denied overtime, which they are entitled to by law.

Santos Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant who has called America home for eight years, worked at the Sutphin Car Wash for four years. He stated the importance of these worker elections to him.

"These elections are very important for us because we deserve a fair salary, job security and other benefits," said Lopez. "With a union, they will treat us with respect and dignity. I'm very happy for myself and my co-workers because of the changes we think will happen at our workplace."

Back in 2008, after investigations, New York state government officials said there were widespread labor law violations in the car wash industry, including $6.5 million in underpayments to 1,380 workers. Deborah Axt, co-executive director for Make the Road New York, said that with a history of exploiting workers, car washes are now on notice.

"Momentum is building in this industry," said Axt in a statement. "Last week, car wash workers at Sunny Day in the Bronx spontaneously went on strike, and now Sutphin and LMC Soho workers join the workers at the Webster Car Wash, making three John Lage-owned car washes in one month that have voted to unionize. These workers had to face down threats and intimidation just to make the basic legally guaranteed choice to join a union. That reality is depressing, but the courage they have shown tells us all that their time has come."