January 31, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, NY – Workers at a popular Elmhurst car wash who couldn’t even get a “good morning” out of their boss after they overwhelmingly voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU] in November, forced the owner of the Five Star Car Wash On Broadway late Thursday morning to finally agree to start negotiating a fair contract with the union after employees walked off the job and briefly shut down the establishment located at 42-08 80th Street.
Employees earning a sub-minimum wage of $6.25 spent a little over an hour diverting motorists eager to rinse off all the road salt accumulated over the last snow storm, before car wash owner David Amar sent word to the striking workforce that he would, indeed, sit down with their union on Monday to begin hammering out a contract.
“We expected this,” said Maria Canela, an organizer with Make the Road New York – one part of an alliance of labor-friendly organizations along with the RWDSU that is helping to revolutionize the car wash industry through the Wash New York campaign. “This is the way this guy works. He needed a little pressure on him. We prefer the easy way – but he doesn’t.”
Prior to this, organizers say that five separte letters sent to the car wash owner insiting on contract negotiations went unanswered.
In addition to the cold shoulder routine, workers at the Five Star Car Wash On Broadway say that Amar retaliated agains pro-union employees by cutting their hours, forcing them to work on their days off – and suspending them for a week or more if they refused.
Just recently, according to Canela, one low-wage car wash employee named Fernando Plaacio was barred for 10 days after he refused to work on New Year’s Day.
Amar reportedly took over the Elmhurst car wash late last year, around the same time workers voted to unionize.
Fellow “car washero” Rolando Hernandez, 40, agreed that until now, workers’ repeated calls for a fair contract have, in fact, fallen on deaf ears.
The magager on duty during the walkout declined to comment.
“The owner does not respect the workers,” said Hernandez. “He doesn’t talk with the workers. No ‘good morning.' No ‘hello.’ Nothing.”
Joining the RWDSU, nevertheless, has already started to pay dividends for employees who were earning just $4 an hour without overtime prior to overwhelmingly voting to join the RWDSU on November 21.
“I think these guys have been improving because we made them improve,” said Rocio Valerio, a coordinator with New York Communities for Change. “Because the workers voted for a contract and unionized – I don't know if they would have improved the working conditions without it.”
The show of solidarity and courage that workers at Five Star Car Wash On Broadway demonstrated in walking off the job this week is especially significant, because organizers have found that complacency often threatens to seep in once workers in similar circumstances achieve any sort of significant gains.
This time, however, organizers have been quick to emphasize that no matter what hard-pressed employees have so far managed to achieve in their fight for better working conditions – those advances mean little if the owner does not agree to codify them in a binding contract.
“In Spanish we have a saying,” Valerio added. “The paper speaks – if you sign the paper, then we know you are going to stay true to your word.”
After 13 years on the job earning paltry pay, Hernandez has very modest demands of his boss.
“Please respect us,” Hernandez said. “We just need a contract. We're going to work – but we need a contract.”