Car wash workers unionizing

From the September-October 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Car wash workers unionizing

Editor’s note: On Aug. 6, 15 young Mexican workers and student activists picketed the Robertson Car Wash for seven hours in support of low-wage immigrant car wash workers. They again picketed on Aug. 14, along with additional students from the AFL-CIO Union Summer program.

Of the very few drivers who came to have their cars washed, over half of them turned away, taking flyers describing the reason for the boycott. A janitor who has been picketing here for two years said that at the beginning the car wash was very busy, but since then business has declined.

The CLEAN (Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network) Carwash Campaign is a coalition of labor unions, immigrant rights, environmental and other progressive organizations in support of 7,000 to 10,000 car wash workers struggling to improve the substandard working conditions in the greater Los Angeles area. Its goal is also to help keep the environment clean and keep wastewater from polluting rivers and the ocean. Erik, a youth, writer, student and CLEAN Carwash Campaign organizer, told News & Letters:

Los Angeles–When the Campaign first started talking to the workers three years ago, the workers told them what was going on, then said, “We want your help in fixing this.” For instance, an owner would have a car washer work ten hours, but maybe pay them for only five or six. The workers needed the money, so they accepted it. There’s a lot of that.

The struggle includes having the boss provide clean drinking water, clean and proper restrooms, work in the shade, and rest and lunch breaks. California law says all workers are entitled to such breaks, regardless of their immigration status, but they aren’t provided by owners.

There is no standard for how car wash employers operate and treat the workers. Car wash owners operate against existing labor laws. Workers have to handle toxic chemicals, sometimes acids and waxes. Owners try to gain as much money as possible by exploiting the workers. With some workers, there are language barriers. Sometimes, immigration status is involved.

A lot of times, not understanding that they’re entitled to their rights, they fear the authorities. So it’s hard for them to understand that their legal status has nothing to do with them as workers. The owners exploit this, threatening them and saying, if you don’t cooperate, we’re calling the police, or immigration; or, if you don’t like this job, go somewhere else. People need to support themselves or their family, so out of that need they stay and put up with all that goes on.

When businesses offer specials at bargain prices, it usually comes at a cost to the worker. There have been times when workers complained about not getting paid or not getting a break. They tell them to go home, or not to come back to work for a month. If the owners are really bad, they’ll fire them, saying there are plenty of people who want the job, willing to put up with the abuse and not complain.

Our goal is to reach an agreement with the owners, for them to sign a contract with the CLEAN Carwash Campaign that unionizes the industry and brings about standard working conditions for all car washers.

–Erik, CLEAN Car Wash Campaign

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