QUEENS, N.Y. -- On Tuesday morning, a group of roughly 100 workers, local labor leaders and community organizers gathered in the cold in a parking lot in front of Metro Car Wash to announce a bold new campaign for New York City: a drive to bring fair working conditions to the car wash industry, one in which employees routinely earn below minimum wage and labor law violations are the norm.
The new group, WASH New York, is hoping to gain momentum from some groundbreaking victories out West: In Los Angeles, three car wash businesses recently agreed to the industry's first union contracts in the nation.
One after another on Tuesday, the workers -- all immigrants, speaking in Spanish with the help of a translator -- stepped before a microphone at the center of the crowd to describe the difficulties of trying to earn a living by washing cars in New York.
"They yell at us, they disrespect us and they treat us as if we were not even human beings," said David de la Cruz Perez, a car wash worker from Guatemala, who earns $5.50 an hour plus occasional tips. "We have to be united and put a stop to these abuses," he said, interrupted by cheers from the crowd and calls to "end slavery."
WASH New York, a new coalition organized by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the community groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, also released on Tuesday the results of its investigation of the industry: Sixty-six percent of interviewed workers mentioned getting paid below minimum wage -- which is $7.25 in New York. A majority reported often working more than 40 hours a week without receiving overtime pay, as required by law. Many workers also spoke of on-the-job injuries and concerns about the chemicals used in car washes. None reported receiving paid sick days, and only one mentioned being offered health care insurance.
Just 20 feet away from the crowd, a Metro Car Wash worker, standing by a washing tunnel and clutching a rag, looked on with distrust. The worker, who wore a black face mask to stave off the cold, said he earned $5.50 an hour. But when asked if he would join a movement to try to improve his pay, he shook his head. "Not interested," said the worker, who declined to give his name, glancing at the crowd that was chanting in Spanish and holding signs with the slogans "We demand a living wage now" and "Wage theft is illegal."
Calls placed to Metro Car Wash's office to seek comment from the owner were not returned.
Although several car wash workers who spoke to the Tuesday gathering said they were not afraid of being fired, they acknowledged that many of their coworkers were.
"I want to fight," said Adan Nicolas, a Mexican immigrant, in Spanish. "But I understand why others are scared."
They have good reason to be: Some car wash owners would rather close up shop than raise wages and deal with a union.
"I'd rather close my places and fire everybody and just retire and do something else with my money," said Moshe Winer, the owner of several car washes throughout New York City but not of Metro Car Wash. If wages and benefits for his workers went up to, say, $10 an hour, his profit margin would be too slim for him to keep operating, he said. He pays his workers at least minimum wage, Winer said, adding that while not everyone "plays by the rules," most of the city's other car wash owners pay above minimum wage, too.
But a 2008 investigation by the New York Department of Labor revealed that nearly 8 of every 10 car washes in the city violate minimum wage and overtime laws, with some employers paying just $3 an hour. The former state labor commissioner, M. Patricia Smith, said then that the industry was a "disgrace." The investigation, which is ongoing, led to millions of dollars in fines assessed of owners.
The Department of Labor did not respond to requests for specific details about whether Metro Car Wash had violated labor laws. "We continue to monitor labor law compliance in car washes," said Leo Rosales, a department spokesman. "Our main goal in this is to make sure that employers comply with the law."
In Los Angeles and New York, state investigations of the industry have been hailed by those leading union organizing fights. State regulators in Los Angeles just announced two new complaints against car wash owners and have asked for more than $2 million in unpaid wages, penalties and damages, according to the Los Angeles Times. Regardless of the immigration status of their workers, employers are required by law to pay fair wages and provide safe working conditions.
The car wash industry is composed of many different small business owners and tiny workplaces with only a handful of employees.
"They tend to be single-location operators who may not speak the language and have little or no interest in joining a state association or learning the rules," said Suzanne Stansbury, the executive director of the New York State Car Wash Association, based in Rexford, N.Y. Stansbury supports efforts to improve working conditions in the metropolitan New York City area, she said.
In past decades, unions have not always embraced immigrant workers; some union activists have occasionally accused immigrants of stealing American jobs and driving down wage levels by accepting low-paying work. But times have changed, as union influence has faded and manufacturing organizations have shipped jobs overseas. Now American unions need immigrants, and the car wash workers gathered on Tuesday said they need the union, too.
"Unions have been reluctant to take these fights on because [they're] incredibly low reward and labor intensive," said Jennifer Gordon, a professor of law at Fordham University, who specializes in immigration and labor law. "The question is, Who's working in low-wage jobs today? Most of the jobs that can move have moved, and this is where the fight is now."