Andrew Lichtenstein on the struggle to unionize car wash workers in New York City.

December 12, 2012

A Living Wage

Photographer Andrew Lichtenstein

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Brooklyn, New York
December 7, 2012

The industrial unions of prewar America that built the middle class in this country are no more. Today, organized labor can no longer claim to be a decisive political or economic power. Representing barely ten percent of the national work force, and besieged at once by multi-national corporations and conservative politicians, the unions are shells of their former selves. With the closing of the factories, and so many manufacturing jobs shipped overseas, yesterday’s industrial unions now cling to pension rights for their retirees rather than recruit new members.

In the modern service economy of post-industrial America, low wages and transient jobs have replaced skilled labor. These jobs are often performed by new immigrants who face many of the same bleak conditions that brought about the birth of the old unions. Paid a minimum wage that they can barely survive on, these newly arrived immigrants, many of them undocumented from Mexico or Central and Latin America, can be fired at will. All too often, the people who serve America face a dead-end: they have few rights in the workplace, and little, if any, chance to work their way up the social ladder into the middle class.


New York, New York May 17, 2012 Car wash workers at LMC Car Wash in East Harlem try on new union shirts for the first time after their shift has just ended.

As a photographer, I’m always looking for ways to document these historical changes. Not long ago, I learned that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was beginning a campaign to organize the men and women who work in carwashes across New York City.  Anyone who has ever taken their car to be cleaned at one of these shops can understand why the workers are ripe for exploitation. Many do not speak English; they do not have to interact with customers. They get paid a sub-minimum wage, and must rely on tips. Each day they are exposed to industrial-strength cleaning agents. And when it rains, they are sent home–without pay. As a place to begin to document a union’s attempt to organize the new service economy, New York City’s car washes, hidden below the entrance and exit ramps of the city’s outer-borough expressways, seemed a good place to start.


New York, New York May 17, 2012 Car wash workers watch a union rally held on the street outside LMC car wash in East Harlem. After their shift ended, several workers joined the rally.

Earlier this fall, I followed Chio Valerio, a union organizer working for New York Communities for Change, an activist organization that helps unions organize minimum wage workers across the city, as she visited carwash workers in Brooklyn and the Bronx.  A recent transplant from Chicago, Chio, 27, is one of those people who live to work.  Believing deeply in the rights of workers, Chio has little time for anything but organizing.  She constantly travels on the subways to the end of the lines, from the Tremont section of the Bronx to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, or wherever carwash workers have expressed interest in joining a union.

Usually Chio is buried in her cell phone, sending and receiving texts, except when she meets with the workers. Her office is a pizza restaurant nearby, or the closest White Castle or Dunkin Donuts. Then, no matter the venue, she comes alive, arguing, negotiating, cajoling in rapid-fire Spanish, as a half dozen young men huddle around her at a back table. There are work rivalries to settle, disputes over tip money and the scheduling of the all-important number of shift hours, testimonies of illegal threats from managers and owners to notarize, and a careful tally of how many workers can be counted on to support a bid for a union and how many will not.


Bronx, New York October 4, 2012 Webster Car Wash workers attend a union meeting in a local Bronx storefront church basement a week before their car wash union election.

Recently several workers at the Sunny Day Car Wash on Lincoln Avenue in the South Bronx read a newspaper story about a union election at another carwash, and inspired, organized themselves. They were immediately fired. Chio quickly joined them on a narrow picket line next to the concrete entrance ramp to the Third Avenue Bridge.   Standing a few feet away from their co-workers who decided to stay on the job, the small band of workers held up signs demanding better pay and urging passing drivers to get their cars cleaned elsewhere. Some cars honked in support, while others, about to enter the car wash, took a union flyer and backed up and turned around. But many kept their windows tightly shut, and entered the car wash. “Shame on you” Chio screamed at each driver. “You’d think in New York they would know better”.

In the history of American labor, the struggle of these workers is as old as the nation itself. These new New Yorkers fight for a decent living wage and working conditions just as the Irish and Italians and Poles and Russians and African Americans did before them. They have inherited a tradition from those who organized the great industrial unions of the automobile and steel factories and coal mines before them. Frequently fired for even mentioning a union, with scant resources to fall back on, many car wash workers can claim one thing that other Americans seem to have lost in their slow ascent into the middle class: a will to fight. Perhaps it is because they have so little to lose.

PHOTOGRAPHS + TEXT by Andrew Lichtenstein
Editors: Anthony Suau, Photo ; Andrew Meier, Text

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