Luis Muñoz, left, and Jorge Porras in front of the Squeaky Clean Car Wash in Santa Fe, N.M. The two were fired after they sent the company a list of grievances.CreditMark Holm for The New York Times
SANTA FE, N.M. — Jorge Porras used to report to his carwash job here most mornings at 8:15 a.m., but he said that his boss often did not let him clock in until 11, when customers frequently began streaming in. Many days he was paid for just six hours, he said, even though he worked nine and a half hours.
One day, when the heavy chain that pulled cars forward got stuck, Mr. Porras tried to fix it, but it suddenly lurched forward and cut off the top of his right ring finger. The injury caused him to miss work for the next two weeks, he said, but he received no pay or workers’ compensation for the forced time off.
Mr. Porras and nine co-workers became so fed up that they took an unusual step. They formed a workers committee (not a labor union) and sent a certified letter to the owner of the carwash. In it, they complained about being “insulted and humiliated” in “front of our co-workers and customers” and protested being required to work off the clock and not being given goggles or gloves even though they worked with toxic chemicals.
An advocacy group for immigrant workers, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, advised Squeaky Clean’s workers to set up such a committee because the National Labor Relations Act — enacted under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 — prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for engaging in “concerted” activity to improve their wages and conditions, even when they are not trying to unionize.
In an era when the traditional labor unions envisioned by Depression-era supporters of that law have weakened steadily, many advocates now see work site committees as an alternative way to strengthen workers’ clout and protections.
Simon Brackley, president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, said Somos had exaggerated the prevalence of wage violations and had been too quick to pounce on employers. But Somos is not backing down, and many worker groups are now copying its work site committee idea, which has been adopted at about 35 restaurants, hotels and other companies in Santa Fe.
“A lot of workers don’t know about labor unions, and a lot are scared of retaliation if they try to form one,” said Marcela Diaz, the executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido (We are a United People). “So we have to find ways to protect workers when there isn’t a union.”
Santa Fe may be a famously artsy, liberal community, Ms. Diaz said, but many businesses too readily take advantage of their immigrant employees.
Luis Muñoz, a co-worker at the Squeaky Clean Car Wash, said their boss frequently humiliated workers, sometimes shouting, “You’re good for nothing.” One winter day, Mr. Muñoz said, the boss — complaining that cars were not being washed faster — soaked him with bone-chilling water from a hose.
Only days after the Squeaky Clean workers sent their letter in 2012, the owner fired Mr. Porras, Mr. Muñoz and four others. The fired workers and Somos complained to the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Phoenix. That office soon filed a civil complaint against Squeaky Clean, accusing it of unlawfully retaliating against the workers for engaging in what the courts call “protected, concerted” activities.
“We knew we’d have little protection if we acted alone,” Mr. Porras, an immigrant from Guatemala, said in Spanish. “But we knew that if we formed a committee, we’d be protected.”
Ultimately, the labor board ordered Squeaky Clean to reinstate the workers and pay $6,000 in back wages. The carwash agreed separately to pay $60,000 to settle claims for minimum wage and overtime violations.
The workers say that, in response to the worker committee’s pressure, the carwash has improved conditions for those who complained (but not necessarily for the rest of the crew) — paying them for their full eight hours and giving a one-hour lunch break and one-week paid vacation. Jay Ritter, Squeaky Clean’s owner, did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment.
These newfangled worker committees have been accumulating victories. In recent years, workers at 12 New Mexico companies have complained to the N.L.R.B. that they were fired for pushing to improve conditions. In 11 of those cases, the labor board’s Phoenix office found that the firings had been unlawful and pressed for the workers’ reinstatement.
“A lot of people thought the National Labor Relations Act could be used only during unionization campaigns,” said Andrew Schrank, a labor relations specialist who recently became a professor at Brown University after teaching at the University of New Mexico. “They’re finding that the National Labor Relations Act is much more expansive than many people thought.”
Richard F. Griffin Jr., the labor board’s general counsel, said a 1962 Supreme Court case — involving a spontaneous walkout because a factory was so cold — makes clear that the National Labor Relations Act protects nonunion workers, too.
“It’s important that people understand that the law applies to all private sector workplaces and protects activity outside the context of union activity,” Mr. Griffin said.
Somos’s success has impressed officials at many of the nation’s 230 immigrant worker centers.
“We’re looking at taking some of these steps,” said Adam Kader, director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center. “We urge workers to form committees with as many people as possible. We know three people out of 20 at a workplace is much better than one out of 20.”
To the relief of business, labor specialists say these committees will rarely if ever be as effective as traditional unions, which are larger and engage in collective bargaining.
Somos, a 20-year-old immigrants’ advocacy group, originally focused on persuading New Mexico lawmakers to let immigrants without legal papers obtain driver’s licenses. That effort succeeded. The group has since found a fresh calling, fighting for immigrants who face workplace problems, sometimes by staging raucous protests after workers filed claims alleging wage theft or illegal firings.
“We feel that the group’s tactics are over the top,” said Carol Wight, chief executive of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “I think there are nicer, more effective ways of getting what you want — achieving justice for workers.” She said most restaurants tried to comply with labor laws, but New Mexico has various overlapping minimum wage laws that can make compliance difficult.
Glenn Spencer, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, voiced concern that some immigrant worker groups like Somos were fronts for unions and were being used to help rebuild the labor movement.
Ms. Diaz said Somos was not fronting for unions, adding that they had shown scant interest in organizing low-wage immigrant workers in New Mexico.
“It’s hard to form unions,” acknowledged Mike Archuleta, immediate past president of the Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council. “If these workers could join a union, I would prefer that. But as far as protecting their own rights, these worker committees are the next best thing.”
Four hotel housekeepers at the Holiday Inn Express in Los Alamos were fired after forming a workers committee and complaining to management about harsh treatment, favoritism and unfair punishments. A federal judge ordered them reinstated with $11,375 in back pay. A receptionist at the hotel said there was no one to discuss the case.
One of the first cases involved 19 janitors for the Santa Fe school system who formed a workers committee in 2008 because they were upset that a supervisor was repeatedly harassing female workers, they said. The committee contacted the cleaning contractor that employed them, Merchants Building Maintenance, and pressed it to take action.
That supervisor soon retired, but the next year, the contractor refused to rehire the committee’s 19 members, while rehiring almost everyone else. After extensive litigation, a labor board judge ordered that the employees be reinstated, and the janitors received $130,000 in back pay. The janitors were never rehired because the company lost its contract with the school system. Merchants Building Maintenance did not respond to inquiries.
Three workers at Posa’s El Merendero restaurant here said they were fired after sending a letter asking management to discuss their concerns: not being paid for attending a 5 a.m. monthly meeting, not being paid when they worked through lunch, and often not being paid time and a half for overtime.
“If I were to do this on my own, they would just fire me and that would have been the end of it,” said Mayté Flores, a cook who lost her job. “When we wrote the letter together, we were able to protect ourselves.”
The N.L.R.B. ordered the restaurant to rehire the workers.
Jeff Posa, the restaurant’s co-owner, criticized Somos and defended his actions.
“I can’t say anything positive about them,” he said, asserting that the group incites workers to attract members and membership fees. Somos’s membership fee is $20. Mr. Posa said the fired workers had provoked heated arguments in the kitchen with co-workers. “I don’t want to have people that are upset making my food,” he said. “That’s not good for my workers or my customers.”
Mr. Porras, the carwash worker, said the campaign was having ripple effects across the city. “I’m helping other workers,” he said. “People in Santa Fe are less willing to abuse workers because they see workers are standing up for their rights.”
A version of this article appears in print on September 7, 2015, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Workers Organize, but Don’t Unionize, to Get Protection Under Labor Law.