In September, workers at Astoria Car Wash & Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube in Queens scored a historic victory, becoming the first car wash workers on the East Coast to join a union. The new RWDSU members at Hi-Tek have taken an important step toward improving their jobs and their lives. Their action sends a powerful message to other low-wage immigrant workers in the city that they don’t have to accept poor working conditions, wage theft, low pay and other abuses.
There are thousands of car wash workers in the five boroughs, and they are among the most exploited and underpaid workers in the city. A report issued earlier this year by the WASH New York campaign–a joint effort between community groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, and supported by the RWDSU–illustrated why workers need unions to change the car wash industry in the city.
The report details the abuses suffered by car wash workers in New York on a daily basis. WASH New York surveyed workers at 29 different car washes and found widespread mistreatment, poor working conditions and often illegally low pay. Many workers were paid even below the meager $5.45 hourly minimum wage that tipped workers are supposed to receive as base pay, and management stealing from the tip jar is a fact of life. The majority of workers surveyed put in at least 60 hours a week but were denied the legal overtime pay rate they are supposed to earn for exceeding 40 hours.
The often illegally low pay is coupled with a dangerous work environment filled with offensive chemicals. Making matters worse is the fact that most of the workers reported that they were not provided with the proper protective equipment for the job. The results are burned skin and irritation in the lungs and throat that can make the simple act of breathing painful. Long after returning home, workers’ eyes burn, and vision problems persist for some even after they’ve left the car wash for another job.
Health issues go untreated at work, where even finding Band-Aids to cover cuts from sharp metal edges can be a daunting task. Working at a car wash means blood and tears for many employees, and without proper first aid, protective equipment, sick days or health care, they are on their own.
In the past, car wash workers were afraid to speak up. Car wash bosses bully their mostly immigrant workers, leaving their employees–who are desperate to provide for their families–feeling hopeless and beaten.
But thanks to the courage of car wash workers like those at Hi-Tek, that’s starting to change. By standing together and demanding a union voice, they are showing workers throughout New York City that things can be different.
Low-wage work doesn’t have to mean constantly being frustrated, tired and broke. These workers can fight back and win better lives by joining a union like the RWDSU.