Carwasheros, Before Meeting Pope Francis, Talk Of Gains From Unionizing

Joining a union has immensely benefited 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,”

Santiago told the Times. “I’ve seen the Pope on television. He’s helped people and given a voice to working people and immigrants.” 

Encouraging the legalization and welcome of immigrants was one of Francis’ most constant themes during his visit to the U.S. The carwasheros all supported him in that goal. 

Francis strongly stated it before Congress, too – and its majority Republicans didn’t applaud.

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 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and 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.

“We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here: The heroic first-responders -- our firefighters, police officers, emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel, along with all the innocent men and women who were victims of this tragedy simply because their work or service brought them here on Sept. 11, 2001,” he said.

“This is a place where we shed tears, we weep out of a sense of helplessness in the face of injustice, murder, and the failure to settle conflicts through dialogue. Here we mourn the wrongful and senseless loss of innocent lives because of the inability to find solutions which respect the common good.”

While the carwasheros and other low-income and immigrant workers met with Francis during his New York stop, Communications Workers members used his Philadelphia stop at a massive Church-sponsored families conference to educate participants about their fight for better wages and working conditions, too. The unionists, members of Local 13000 and Local 13500, leafleted conferees to ask for support in their stalled negotiations with Verizon.

“We thought, ‘What a place to do this,’” Local 13500 President Julie Daloisio told CWA, given the Pope’s emphasis on uplifting families, including through decent wages, working conditions and unions. “We've been in negotiations with Verizon for several months, a profitable company that is trying to cut jobs and benefits. Verizon’s new slogan is 'Better Matters,' but cutting jobs for families is not better,” Daloisio said.