April 11, 2012
It's Hardly A Wash For Car-Clean Kingpin
Pressure is mounting on one of the city's biggest car-wash operators as organizers of a union drive in the niche industry receive pledges from taxi and black-car drivers to support any boycott called in connection with the campaign.
Pelham, N.Y.-based Lage Management Corp. is the top target of the effort, which is led by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change. A potential boycott would likely focus on the more than 20 car washes Lage operates in the city. With possibly thousands of taxi and black-car drivers on board, a boycott could cost the company some of its most important repeat patrons.
The promise of support from the drivers at a press conference on Wednesday comes after several political figures have already inserted themselves into the labor campaign. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating potential wage and hour violations at Lage car washes. And Public Advocate Bill de Blasio wrote a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg urging the city to stop getting its cars cleaned at Lage washes, citing more than $170,000 spent at the venues since 2010.
Some Lage workers allege that management routinely skirts minimum wage and overtime laws, even though the company agreed in a 2009 consent judgment with the federal government to not violate the Fair Labor Standards Act's minimum-wage, overtime and recordkeeping requirements. As part of the settlement, Lage agreed to fork over $3.4 million that it underpaid workers.
Jennifer Lage, a company manager and the daughter of owner John Lage, said her firm was “one of the best” in the area for workers. “Any concerns being raised about us are being driven by an outside group to manipulate our employees and to promote their own union,” she said. “Claims we don't pay minimum wage, overtime or tips employees are entitled to are simply not true.”
Ms. Lage added that her company has created hundreds of jobs for immigrants and other New Yorkers. She would not address the attorney general's investigation but said a recent state Department of Labor audit did not find any “significant violations.” A DOL spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The threats to boycott car washes in connection with the campaign were issued Wednesday by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a 15,000-member union that represents yellow-car drivers, and District 15 International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which is organizing black-car drivers.
“Low wages, long hours, difficult labor, unsafe conditions— if you line these up on a sheet of paper they could apply to taxi drivers as easily as they apply to car-wash workers,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the 15,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “We can really viscerally relate to the conditions they're facing.”
Jim Conigliaro Sr., directing business representative of District 15, vowed that black-car drivers “would stand with” the car-wash workers in the event of a boycott. “If we put a call out not to patronize a car wash because they're abusing their workers, believe me, these guys understand what that's about,” he said.
Organizers of the campaign would not say when they might call for a boycott, but they clearly hope the threat of losing some of their best customers convinces Lage and other car-wash operators to come to the table and negotiate.
“Combine all money going to Lage from city government with all the taxi drivers, and it starts to send a clear message that this isn't your standard campaign,” said Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change. “This is a big deal.”
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