I believe my father owned one of the first automatic car washes in New York City, located on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx. It was around 1950 and I can still recall a TV blip of him driving into the car wash and the newscaster, John Cameron Swayze, making note of this distinct new type of business.
It was labor intensive without automatic brushes and powerful blowers. It was back-breaking work. At 12, I assisted at the cash register and it was then that I first became aware of the “dirty side” of business. Two brawny men entered and as I learned later, had come for the monthly pay off. They were from an AFL chartered union, but it was in fact a “paper union.” The paper unions were Mafia controlled and fostered a shake down exchange that provided protection. With the collusion of these pseudo but legal union representatives, my dad was able to avoid legitimate organizers. The rationale was he could not make a decent profit if he had to pay union wages and benefits.
A side show to the corruption was the role of the police. Blue laws were enforced back then, and most businesses were expected to close on Sunday. My father explained after a Sunday visit by a sergeant, that he was the “bag man” for the local precinct. The police officers, with the full knowledge of the precinct captain would divide the “take” from local businesses and in exchange they were allowed to remain open. A pecking order of exploitation existed. The mafia/union types and the cops pecked at my father’s business. Down below, were the vulnerable employees.
The system involved a “shape-up” on Fox St., then and still, a world of the underclass. Guys jostled to join the car wash crew on a daily basis – mostly poorly educated African Americans, Puerto Ricans and ex-cons. None were aware that they would be members of a “union” which theoretically could offer job protection and security. Some were paid off the books, and thus were not eligible for workman’s comp. If sick or injured, they would be laid off without pay or benefits until regaining the strength to work again.
This is not to say my father was unkind; rather like many small businessmen, he faced a precarious balancing act between morality and profit. He once explained the economics that made the business an attractive one. He emphasized transactions were in cash and thus offered a “premium value.” To my way of thinking this could be considered a compensating factor to help meet higher, legitimate, unionization costs but I remained silent; after all he was my dad.
The blue laws in New York City ended long ago and hopefully Paper Unions are a thing of the past. Yet the unorganized, car washers continue to remain some of the least amongst us. Reading an article about current, unionization efforts, a guilty memory reverberates. After a day of helping to vacuum; the marginally paid car wash crew generously invited this son of the boss to partake in the sharing of their meager tips.
Eugene Barron has a doctorate in the Human Relations, and is a psychotherapist, documentary film maker, and author of the recently published book, Hungry Ghosts: Voices of Prostitutes, Addicts, Murderers. He resides on the Upper West Side