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Car Wash Industry Awash in Labor Violations
Labor Press
Marc Bussanich

March 12, 2012
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Unwilling to rest on his laurels, Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, whose union was instrumental in the Living Wage NYC Campaign to raise the wages for workers working on development projects receiving weighty public subsidies, announced last week a new campaign to change the dirty habits of the city’s car wash industry.

In collaboration with two community-based organizations, Make the Road New York and NY Communities for Change, Appelbaum announced on Tuesday, March 6, the launch of the WASH NY campaign and a new investigative report showing the workplace abuses the mostly Latino workforce are subjected to in the industry.

The report, “The Dirty Business of Cleaning NYC’s Cars,” cites that workers receive low pay, poor treatment from their bosses and face hazardous working conditions. For example, the report notes that, based on interviews with 89 city car washers at 29 different car wash facilities, “Over 71 percent of the workers were on the job for at least 60 hours a week, with some working as many as 105 hours. Despite the long hours, 75 percent of the workers didn’t receive any kind of overtime pay for exceeding 40 hours.”

According to Appelbaum, the campaign’s purpose is to shine a bright light on the poor working conditions in the industry. In addition to the low pay, “workers are exposed to corrosive chemicals, they’re required to buy their own uniforms, and owners are taking a percentage of the tips the workers receive from customers.”

He noted that a big problem in the industry is that the car wash owners see their employees as powerless in part because of their immigration status. “The majority of the workers are Latino who speak very little or no English.”

But the campaign is ready to empower the workers while simultaneously informing the public that workers in the car wash industry are being overly exploited. “The only way to ensure real change that is sustainable is through a union contract. Otherwise, any achievements without a contract can be ephemeral,” Appelbaum said.  

Appelbaum explained that the car wash industry is comprised of some owners who may own a dozen or so facilities, but a majority of the facilities are independently owned, and this poses a challenge to traditional union organizing.

The campaign, for example, is not at the point of signing a labor agreement whose provisions apply to all the independently-owned shops. But, as with the recent Living Wage NYC campaign, the WASH NY campaign will rely heavily on the community.

“New organizing models have to be deployed to reflect the labor reality of 2012. I recently read that almost 50 percent of all workers in New York City are immigrants, many of whom have documentation and language issues,” said Appelbaum.

In addition, the new organizing model’s “focus has to be on conditions that are endemic to the whole industry” rather than channeling all organizing resources to a handful of facilities.

One of the campaign’s five recommendations to clean up the city’s car wash industry is, “Appropriate state and city legislative committees focused on labor and workplace safety could schedule hearings this year to determine if new legislation is required.”

Appelbaum noted that the campaign has reached out to a number of elected officials, and some officials have provided good suggestions (Appelbaum would not elaborate on those suggestions). “They’re excited by this campaign and excited by the opportunity to clean up the industry.”

Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-Queens), who supports the campaign’s goals of improving working conditions and a living wage, said he hopes to convene a meeting soon in the City Council with the purported intent of introducing possible legislation.

“Anybody who has had their car washed just has to look at how hard these workers work and the conditions under which they toil to realize that certain basic labor requirements are necessary,” said Dromm.