E. Elmhurst car washers vote for union

Employees of Hi-Tek Car Wash, in East Elmhurst, pose with fellow Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union members. The employees became the first car washers to join a union in New York last week. Photo courtesy RWDSU
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Workers at an East Elmhurst car wash who previously rallied for better working conditions voted 21-5 Saturday to join the international Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, becoming the first car wash workers outside Los Angeles to do so.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union, said the Hi-Tek Car Wash employees’ decision is the first step in a campaign to organize and improve working conditions across the industry.

“Workers will not tolerate unjust and often illegal working conditions,” Appelbaum said. “They are prepared to stand up and my union is prepared to support them.”

Hi-Tek Car Wash is at 83-02 24th Ave. in East Elmhurst. Last month members of the union and the immigration advocacy group Make the Road New York marched with employees to demand better treatment from owner Gary Pinkus. Employees, many of whom are immigrants, alleged Pinkus paid them less than minimum wage, required them to pay for cleaning supplies out-of-pocket and cut hours as retaliation when they complained.

Pinkus did not respond to requests for comment.

Appelbaum said now that the Hi-Tek Car Wash workers are part of the RWDSU union, they will begin negotiations with Pinkus for a fair contract. He said Monday afternoon he did not know what the terms of such a contract would be.

“It’s not unusual for employers to resist organizing efforts by their employees, but once a union is certified they will be required to enter into negotiatio­ns,” he said.

Applebaum said this was the first car wash in New York to unionize. Car wash employees in Los Angeles had organized about a year ago.

Hi-Tek Car Wash has a location in Brooklyn, but the employees there are not included among those who joined RWDSU.

RWDSU and Make the Road have been working with New York Communities for Change to reform the car wash industry. A study from the organizati­ons’ Workers Aligned for a Sustainable and Healthy New York campaign of 89 workers at 29 different car washes revealed that 71 percent of workers worked more than 50 hours a week, but 75 percent of the workers did not receive overtime. In addition, 66 percent took home a salary of less than $7.25 an hour.

Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change, said in a statement he expected Hi-Tek to be the first of many car washes to organize.

“This is an unprecedented victory not just for the workers at Hi-Tek, who have voted to join a union, but for the movement of car wash workers across the city who now have proof that the risks and hard work have paid off for their brothers in Queens,” he said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at or by phone 718-260-4564.

Updated 3:50 am, September 13, 2012
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