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Unions rally for car washers

Juan Antonio (c.) says through a translator at a rally that he has had his wages stolen and hours cut at the East Elmhurst car wash where he works. Photo by Yinghao Luo
TimesLedger Newspapers

Immigrant rights advocates and union members from across the city joined employees of an East Elmhurst car wash last Thursday to demand better wages and working conditions.

The 70 protesters at Hi-Tek Car Wash & Lube, at 83-01 24th Ave., said owner Gary Pinkus pays his employees less than New York state minimum wage, requires employees to pay out-of-pocket for supplies to clean the cars and has cut their hours when the workers have complained.

“What they’re asking are very basic things,” said Ana Maria Archila, of the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York.

Other protesters came from her organization and chapters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. They chanted and beat on snare drums or buckets for about an hour, requesting an audience with Pinkus. Archila said 23 of the business’ 28 employees signed a letter demanding better treatment, and two other employees were supportive but feared further retaliation.

“All we want to do is communicate,” said David Mertz of the union. “All we want to do is achieve justice.”

Pinkus did not respond to requests for comment.

The protesters attempted multiple times to deliver the letter personally, but Pinkus declined to meet with them. Officers from the 115th Precinct occasionally rebuffed those at the rally and other times acted as go-betweens. The protesters eventually put the letter in the business’ mailbox.

Juan Antonio, 29, a Mexican native who has been working at the car wash for five years, said through a Spanish translator that he is paid $5.25 an hour — two dollars less than New York state minimum wage — and has to spend $20 every two months to buy his own gloves and cleaner for the cars. He said that after the workers tried to organize a union a few months ago, their hours were cut.

“He knows very well that we already earn very little, and if we work less hours it’s almost impossible to survive,” Antonio said in a statement.

Mertz said both paying below minimum wage and the retaliation were illegal.

Make the Road and the union have protested against multiple car wash businesses throughout the city, which they say regularly engage in wage theft. Their WASH New York Campaign has earned the support of multiple Queens City Council members.

“We have an industry that is totally rogue, that breaks labor laws left and right,” Archila said.

Make the Road filed a lawsuit against the car wash and Pinkus last month for unpaid wages for 15 employees. They did the same for Hi-Tek’s location in Brooklyn.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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