October 5, 2015
By Mark Gruenberg, Press Associates Union News Service
New York, NY – Joining a union has immensely benefitted their lives, say the three “carwasheros” – unionized Spanish-speaking workers at New York car washes — who met Pope Francis I during his U.S. visit.
Patricio Santiago, Refugio Denecia and Jose Reynaldo Sanchez were among 150 workers who met with the Pontiff at Our Lady Queen of Angels school in East Harlem, their union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers, reported. Day laborers and migrant farm workers who toil in New York’s Hudson Valley were also among the group.
“The invitation for these RWDSU members to meet with the Pope serves as a message to all people in this country that every worker, regardless of what they do or where they came from, is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect,” union President Stuart Appelbaum said.The carwasheros as a group picked Sanchez, a shop steward, Santiago and Denecia to meet with Francis, after Catholic Charities learned the Pope wanted to take time from his speeches to dignitaries in New York and D.C. to talk with workers and immigrants.
Francis is known for his outspoken pro-worker stands and caustic criticism of unbridled capitalism that places people in the service of moneyed interests. His talk with immigrant workers and students in the school in Spanish Harlem concentrated on immigration reform.The three carwasheros are immigrants, as are colleagues whom RWDSU organized citywide. Carwasheros are part of the mass movement of low-wage workers from coast to coast who now demand living wages and the right to organize without employer retaliation.“Car wash workers in New York City have also been an inspiration to immigrants and working people.
They’ve fought back against a culture of exploitation; and by winning union contracts and representation with the RWDSU, they are proving that when workers join together, they can make a difference in their lives,” Appelbaum said after the Sept. 25 meeting.“Pope Francis has become an extraordinary moral leader on economic injustice for all people in this world, regardless of their faith.
He inspires me, he inspires the carwash workers and he inspires working people across the globe,” he told the New York Daily News.Santiago told the New York Times that before he and his colleagues organized with RWDSU and negotiated contracts with the car washes, they worked 12-hour days in the dirty and dark jobs, seven days a week. They earned the minimum wage, with no overtime.
Now, for six-day workweeks, they earn $8.65 an hour straight pay, and overtime — $11.36 – after the first 40 hours. “The shifts are 12 hours,” Mr. Santiago said. “Before the contract, it was seven days. Now it is six days.”“I am happy and humble” to meet the Pope, “but I am representing the other workers,”In New York, Francis endorsed the workers’ drive to better themselves through collective action, by citing the Rev. Martin Luther King. The school is near an avenue in Harlem named for the civil rights leader, Francis noted.“One day he said, ‘I have a dream,’” Francis said of King’s 1963 speech. “His dream was that many children, many people could have equal opportunities.
He dreamed that many men and women, like yourselves, could lift their heads high, in dignity and self-sufficiency. It is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for our dreams. Don’t ever forget this.“Today we want to keep dreaming. We celebrate all the opportunities which enable you, and us adults too, not to lose the hope of a better world with greater possibilities. So many of the people I have met are also dreaming with you, they are dreaming of this. That is why they are doing this work.
They are involved in your lives to help you move ahead. All of us dream.”The Pope also honored other workers, specifically Fire Fighters and other victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. He laid a white rose at the New York memorial to the victims and prayed inside the museum there, along with other faith leaders.