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NYC’s Essential Laundromat Workers at the Heart of the PRO Act Struggle

Op-ed: Former employees of Laundromat Wash Supply, and others like them, need the protections that the PRO Act would provide.

Protesters hold placards while walking on a picket line during a demonstration March 6 to support the Wash Supply Laundromat workers. (Photo by Ron Adar / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

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“WE ARE THE UNION,” read their aprons, painted in green block letters.

The struggles that New York City laundromat workers are now facing illustrate why it’s so important that Biden delivers on his promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”

On Jan. 29, Mexican immigrant women workers at Laundromat Wash Supply on the Upper West Side made history by winning their campaign to form NYC’s first independent retail laundromat union. Despite their social and economic vulnerability, these women fought fearlessly for their safety and dignity.

In response, Wash Supply fired them.

This union-busting move is illegal, but all too common. The workers have demanded that Liox Cleaners, the laundry delivery company that owns Wash Supply, rehire them and negotiate with their union.

And while a bill that House Democrats passed this month — the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act — would provide legal support for these demands, it faces an uphill battle in the 50/50 split Senate. Former employees of Laundromat Wash Supply, and others like them, need the protections that the PRO Act would provide.

When the Wash Supply workers connected with the Laundry Workers Center, a community-based leadership development organization, in 2019, they were determined to end exploitation in their workplace. They were being paid below minimum wage with no overtime pay; they worked with no heat in the winter, no air conditioner in the summer, and no safety measures to protect them from allergic reactions to cleaning chemicals; and they were forced to buy their own toilet paper. Management also subjected them to gender and racial discrimination: the company’s drivers (all men) were always paid on time, while the women laundresses were not and though white, non-Hispanic employees were permitted to take breaks, Latina workers – who were frequently on the receiving end of discriminatory verbal abuse – were not. As Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran, Co-Director of the LWC noted, “this kind of behavior towards workers is unacceptable, regardless of race, gender, or status.” Finally, management showed a careless disregard for their safety. When an industrial dryer caught fire one day at Wash Supply, the workers discovered that the emergency exit had been blocked and the fire extinguisher was nowhere to be found.

The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened matters. Wash Supply’s basement is not well-ventilated and the laundromat did not provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). With no mask or gloves, limited space to social distance, and no protocol for workplace disinfection, the women were at much higher risk for infection by the novel coronavirus.

To secure safer conditions on the job and protect their lives, the Wash Supply workers decided to organize. “It was very stressful to work there,” said Yuriana Sanchez, a former Wash Supply worker. “So we decided to seek out help and fight for our rights. We said, enough with the stigmatization, the discrimination, and the robbing of our wages.”

On Feb. 19, rather than negotiate with employees, Wash Supply fired the workers and closed the laundromat. This is a tactic commonly used by laundromats to retaliate against workers. Now, the workers have lost the income needed to support themselves and their families.

In the weeks leading up to the union election, management engaged in a wide range of intimidation tactics, which included issuing threats, cutting hours, withholding money from paychecks, hiring a union-busting consultant, and firing one of the leaders of the effort prior to the election. “It’s not right that the owners closed the store because we formed a union. And now, they’re hiding,” said Sanchez. These strategies are unfortunately not unique: employers violate federal law in an approximate 41.5% of union elections. These anti-union moves are exactly what the PRO Act would guard against.

Though firing workers for organizing unions is illegal, one in five employers do it anyway since NLRA provisions are rarely enforced. The PRO Act would discourage unlawful union-busting by compensating illegally fired workers, charging employers with civil penalties, and providing workers with private right of action to file lawsuits against their employers. The latter would allow workers to act independently of the NLRB.

The former employees of Wash Supply are ones who have kept our city running during the pandemic and their right to organize must be defended. While healthcare workers saved lives and delivery workers kept people fed, the Wash Supply laundromat workers ensured cleanliness and hygiene for the many New Yorkers who lack in-unit washers and dryers. Though these women are essential to our local economy, the cleaning company treats them as disposable. Further, 54% of essential workers in NYC, like the Wash Supply workers, are immigrants, some of whom are undocumented. These women, along with over 400,000 other immigrant workers in NYC, were excluded from the CARES act and have not received any state or federal coronavirus relief. In response to this failure, community organizations and leaders have stepped up to advocate for their own interests and those of other excluded workers.

The PRO Act would support organizing efforts by immigrant communities aimed at ensuring safe working conditions and higher wages. In 2002, the Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB Supreme Court decision excluded undocumented workers from the right to be rehired and receive back pay when they are illegally fired. Employers commonly use this exclusion to exploit undocumented employees. At long last, the PRO Act would protect undocumented workers from this loophole. All workers would have the same legal rights, regardless of citizenship.

The campaign that Sanchez and her fellow workers organized is part of a growing national movement by essential, low-wage workers to use collective action to change the conditions of their daily lives, from Bessemer, Alabama to Hunts Point in The Bronx. The PRO Act would protect these collective actions. By providing much-needed legal recourse for unionizing workers, the PRO Act would challenge and curtail employers’ exploitative practices.

And since the most marginalized people among us are at the heart of the struggle for workers’ rights, they will be most helped by the PRO Act. They deserve these protections. As Sanchez noted, “We are simply defending what is just.”

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Lula O'Donnell is a junior at Barnard College and a member of Peoples Power Assemblies NYC. 

Tags: immigrationlabor

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