Immigrants Drive Campaign to Unionize L.A. Car Washes

Michelle Chen

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.

As the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse pointed out, L.A.’s car washes seem an unlikely target for a unionization drive,” since the sector is dominated by relatively small enterprises and runs on the cheap sweat of immigrants, many of them undocumented.

Yet the AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers, in partnership with community and immigrant advocacy groups, have used grassroots advocacy and campaigning to move the city’s thousands of car wash workers into the ranks of the labor movement.

Most drivers probably never notice that the workers polishing their hubcaps are virtual wage slaves. According to a report by the union-backed Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) Carwash Campaign, laws on the books offer little relief from wage theft and endless days:

Although the minimum wage in California is $8 per hour, many carwash owners pay their workers by the day at rates far below the legal minimum, and certainly below the accepted living wage” for Los Angeles, which is currently $10.33 per hour. For example, typical daily rates are $55 for shampooers and $35 for dryers, or $5.50 and $3.50 per hour, 31% and 56% below the legal minimum wage.

63 year-old Feliciano Hernandez testified in the report: We used to get breaks for lunch and to take a rest. No more. Now it seems we just work for hours with no breaks and no water, even on the hottest days. And, in the end, the boss shorts our paychecks.”

State investigations have led to numerous busts on carwash owners for flouting labor regulations.

Campaigners hope public scrutiny will keep building in the wake of a legal victory against two notoriously abusive owners, Benny and Nissan Pirian, who recently got jail sentences for underpaying workers.

CLEAN has laid out basic demands for protecting workers and giving them more leverage against employers, including:

1. No employee may be terminated or otherwise disciplined without just cause.
2. Employees have the right to a safe workplace.
3. Employees have the right to receive work assignments through a fair system based on seniority that governs seasonal layoff and recall, days and hours of work, and weekend work.
4. Employees will have the right to take a reasonable number of days off when they are sick.
5. The employer will negotiate in good faith with the chosen representative of its employees about their terms and conditions of employment. 

Organizers face many challenges in mobilizing vulnerable immigrant workers in California’s tense economic and political climate. It’s reportedly common for employers to threaten to report workers out to immigration authorities if they dare protest.

While the workers are generally protected by state labor laws and standards, activists have campaigned for stronger protections and managed to push through the state’s Car Wash Worker Law. While not always strongly enforced, the legislation sets baseline regulations for owners and aids workers who seek to recover backpay.

But the biggest triumph of the campaign to clean up car washes is the empowerment of many workers who may have previously been unaware that they even had equal protection under labor law. The CLEAN Campaign has recruited workers as leading organizers to fuel ground-level activism like boycotts and picketing.

Campaign coordinator Chloe Osmer told In These Times that their strategy draws from conventional unions as well as newer, grassroots worker advocacy groups:

What the carwash campaign has tried to do is merge best of both models. So you have the traditional union organizing drive, where you’re seeking a collective-bargaining contract ultimately with an employer. But then you’re incorporating elements of worker center models as well, where you have heavy emphasis on worker education, leadership development, and empowerment.

Manuel Zuniga, a 50-year-old immigrant from Mexico who said he was fired for trying to organize his workplace, now works with CLEAN’s campaign team, and has traveled widely to speak about his experience and reach out to other workers.

Asked whether he hopes to organize the industry on a national level, he said, It would be difficult, but the struggle is a long one, and god willing we will achieve it some day.”

Campaigner Pedro Guzman told ITT that when he tried to organize workers at the Vermont Car Wash, his boss harassed him and cut his hours in retaliation. Later, he recalled, he was told if he wanted more hours, he had to drop the politics. He hasn’t looked back since.

Yet when he thinks about next steps, he said, I want to return to car wash. But I want to return so that I can continue organizing from within the car wash.” If that doesn’t happen, he said:

I want to keep organizing on the outside…. I want to keep educating workers in car washes in L.A .or even throughout the state of California, to let them know that they have rights, and that we have to keep speaking out for those rights.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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