Immigrant “carwasheros,” who often earn below minimum wage with no benefits, scored an historic victory this week by unionizing two Los Angeles car washes, Vermont Car Wash and Nava’s Car Wash. They were the first in the city limits to unionize. The workers are now members of the United Steelworkers, with the move likely gaining them significantly improved wages, protections and benefits while also scoring a symbolic and tactical win for organized labor as a whole.
Last summer, three car washes in Santa Monica recognized unions and then in October Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica became the first in the country to sign a union contract, as Akito Yoshikane and Michelle Chen reported for Working In These Times.
The California car wash campaign begun in 2008 has been a major focus of the national labor movement, with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka joining L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in person to cheer the achievement on Tuesday. The Carwash Organizing Campaign, affiliated with the United Steelworkers, has rallied much community support and called for boycotts of local car washes, formerly including Vermont, and also including ones with the names Celebrity, Hollywood, Five Star and Magic Wand.
In January, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris announced a settlement for more than $1 million among eight northern and southern California car wash owners that “underpaid workers, denied rest and meal breaks, and created false records of time worked,” according to a press release. The office had filed a lawsuit against the car washes in 2010. In December 2010, workers from Marina Car Wash who lost their jobs right before Christmas performed a play about their plight at a celebrity-heavy restaurant whose owners have family ties to the car wash owners.
In Chicago a campaign by some car wash workers and labor rights activists has been underway for close to a year, with organizers and workers in close contact with their L.A. counterparts. Workers at Little Village Car Wash gained citywide attention with a campaign supported by the group Arise Chicago to get back pay due a number of workers who had worked for years for little more than tips. Workers and supporters bearing squeegees took over the car wash in November.
Car wash workers are emblematic of a significant and stable or even growing sector of the labor economy – people who obviously work in a fixed location, for a given employer, but are often treated as independent contractors, frequently working only for tips with no job stability or benefits. Dish washers, night club dancers, graphic designers and IT professionals are among the diverse range of occupations wherein people often find themselves in similar situations. These workers have traditionally had difficulty unionizing, since they are treated as independent contractors and/or their economic and potentially immigration status make them vulnerable and afraid to anger the employer.
A study by the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) found that while California car washes brought in $872 million in revenue in 2002, workers often earned well below the state minimum wage of $8 an hour.
In addition to paying wages that are illegally low, Los Angeles carwash owners often deny their workers the most basic workplace rights and protections required by law.?Analysis of case files of the California Occupational Health and Safety Administration (Cal/OSHA) reveal numerous citations of carwash owners in Los Angeles.
Working at a carwash can be difficult and even dangerous, especially during the hot summer months when temperatures in Los Angeles approach 100 degrees.
Workers are frequently forced to work without safety equipment, training on how to deal with hazards and chemical exposures in their workplaces, clean drinking water, breaks for rest and meals, minimum wages, overtime pay, health insurance, or respect and dignity on the job.
A study by the University of Illinois at Chicago regarding working conditions at Chicago area car washes is also in the works.
The CLEAN campaign also points out that car washes can be serious local polluters, allowing chemicals to run off into storm sewers that often lead directly to rivers or in California the ocean, while also potentially exposing members of the public to toxics.
As Michelle Chen noted, the car wash bears important cultural symbolism, especially in Southern California:
The car wash is the quintessential symbol of American exuberance. Nothing speaks to our freewheeling consumer culture like our obsession with shampooing, waxing and pimping our rides for the world to see. But in the gleaming car capital of the world, Los Angeles, carwash workers are driving a movement to expose rampant abuses in one of the city’s dirtiest jobs.
A press release from Harris’s office about the lawsuit against car washes notes that:
The car washes required employees to report to work several hours in advance and be available, unpaid, until business picked up. When workers were paid, many received paychecks that could not be cashed because of insufficient company funds. Additionally, the car washes operated for years without licenses from the Labor Commissioner, which are required under California law.
The two-year contract signed by workers at Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica addresses many of the problems with the industry, as Yokishane summarized:
Workers at Bonus Car Wash will see a 2-percent wage increase. In addition to health and safety measures, the contract prohibits the employer from firing workers without just cause or discharging those who voice safety hazard concerns. There is also a grievance and arbitration procedure to settle disputes.
On Tuesday, Mayor Villaraigosa was quoted saying:
What these contracts represent are a good paying job, a better standard of living, and a voice on the job for some of our City’s most exploited workers…In an industry rampant with wage theft and abusive conditions, these businesses have stepped up to do the right thing.
This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached email@example.com.