Friday, March 28, 2008


I'd say its about time. Anyone who has ever had his or her car washed at a hands on carwash can't help but come away figuring the workers there are getting screwed. I mean, you don't have the evidence in hand, but you're gut knows it.

Well, out in LA its out in the open for all to see as a campaign to unionize car wash workers is getting underway.

A coalition of labor, community, religious, and immigrant rights organizations announced a campaign to “clean up” Los Angeles’ multimillion dollar carwash industry. The Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) is supporting the union organizing efforts of the Carwash Workers Organizing Committee of the United Steelworkers (CWOC).

"We will do whatever it takes to clean up the carwash industry," said Jon Hiatt, general counsel for the AFL-CIO.

At a news conference yesterday, union leaders urged consumers to ask owners about their pay practices, and to avoid carwashes that charged less than $8 for a complete wash or that the unions had targeted for picketing.

“Carwash owners are often operating below the radar of labor, health and safety and environmental laws,” Labor Federation spokeswoman Mary Guitierrez said . “Carwash workers are often illegally paid less than the minimum wage, sometimes working for tips alone … and are regularly subjected to health and safety hazards.”

The unions said their first major target in the campaign would be the Pirian family, which owns up to eight carwashes in Los Angeles County. Labor organizers plan to picket at three Pirian-owned washes on Saturday, including the family flagship, Vermont Car Wash, on North Vermont Avenue near Hollywood Boulevard, owned by Bennie Pirian.

Paid workers at some of the other 1,000 washes throughout Southern California earn as little as $1.63 an hour even though the minimum wage rose to $8 an hour in January.

"We sweat like animals," said detailer Manuel Varela, 42.

To survive, carwasheros pool resources, cram into cheap apartments, sleep side by side on the floor like, as one worker put it, "salchichas embolsadas," or stuffed sausages.

"Employers feel out the lowest amount these workers will take," said Timothy Kolesnikow, who represents carwasheros and others in his law practice. "People don't realize the human misery involved in getting their cars washed. There is a dark side to this."

But many undocumented workers won't complain for fear of being fired, threatened or deported.

A report in the Mail Tribune out of Oregon shines a light on what it's like working in a car wash.

At Pico Car Wash, a steady flow of vehicles rolled through the wash tunnel, pulled by a chain as workers rushed to soap them.

"The chain doesn't stop," said Erick Garcia, a "secador," or dryer.

He has done every job at Pico, which has paid or settled wage claims totaling nearly $22,000 since 2000 and is embroiled in a lawsuit over wages by 13 workers, including Garcia.

Soapers, or "jaboneros," wash 500 cars on the busiest days, crouching to brush wheel rims and climbing to scour SUV roofs, Garcia said.

"Your hands have to be like lightning," Garcia said, swiftly lathering one side in less than two minutes.

As customers waited in the shade, Garcia wiped the interiors of vehicles by the midday sun, then sprayed degreaser on the wheel rims.

He and the other workers, about a dozen men ranging in age from 20 to 40, wore baseball caps over wet rags on their heads to keep from overheating.

Garcia's boss, inside an air-conditioned office adorned with a "God Bless America" banner, watched his workers on security monitors.

By comparison, Garcia's job was easy. At the entrance of the carwash, "vacumeros" were suctioning dust out of carpets and plucking out debris, including rotten food, matted dog hair and used condoms.

"You spend all day stooped over," said Garcia, who spent his first year as a vacumero. After 11 hours bent over, his back would spasm as he bicycled home.

The following is from the AFL-CIO Blog

Time to CLEAN Up the Car Wash Industry

by James Parks, Mar 27, 2008

No city loves its cars like Los Angeles, and keeping those cars looking good is big business. The city of Los Angeles has more car washes—430—than any other metropolitan area in the country.

According to the Western Carwash Association, an industry trade group, car washes in Southern California average about $1 million gross annual income and can have a profit margin of up to a whopping 29 percent. But if you are one of the thousands of workers who shampoo, wax, dry and detail cars, you don’t see any of that profit—in fact, you may not get paid at all. You also may have to work long hours in 100-degree heat, with no lunch break, no fresh water to drink and risk getting sick by being exposed constantly to harsh and dangerous chemicals.

Today, the newly formed Community-Labor-Environmental-Action Network (CLEAN) Carwash Campaign, a coalition of community, religious, environmental and immigrant rights organizations, announced plans to support Los Angeles car wash workers’ efforts to form a union with the United Steelworkers (USW). The mostly immigrant car wash workers throughout Los Angeles have formed the Car Wash Workers Organizing Committee of the United Steelworkers (CWWOC) to raise their standard of living, secure basic workplace protections and address the serious environmental and safety hazards in their industry.

Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, told a press conference today:

For too long, carwash owners have operated in the shadows, violating labor and health and safety laws with impunity. This coalition is going to do some spring cleaning of a dirty industry, and bring these injustices out into the open.

The CWWOC released a report, Cleaning Up the Car Wash Industry: Empowering Workers and Protecting Communities, which confirms that Los Angeles car wash owners often ignore labor laws, health and safety regulations and environmental protections in their pursuit of the bottom line. Car wash workers are often illegally paid less than the minimum wage, sometimes working for tips alone.

Says Saturnino Hernandez, a car wash worker:

On a sunny day, hundreds of cars might come through the car wash where I work. The boss yells at us to work faster as the cars line up down the street. We are not allowed to stop for a break or for lunch. They don’t give us any fresh water to drink. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe because of the chemicals; my eyes sting and my skin sometimes breaks out in a painful rash. For all this, I’m paid about $35 for a 10-hour day and when I get sick, I have no insurance to pay the bill.

A Los Angeles Times investigation found that hand car washes “often brazenly violate basic labor and immigration laws, with little risk of penalty.”

Half or more of carwash owners flout the minimum-wage law, estimated David Dorame, the longtime lead investigator for low-wage industries at California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement…employees at a fifth of Southern California’s carwashes in the last five years have formally accused owners of illegally underpaying them, The Times found.

Feliciano Hernandez, who has worked in car washes for more than 40 years, says the workers will gain respect with a union:

I am 63 years old now. I can tell you, it’s gotten much worse for the workers over the years. The boss used to pay us for all the hours we worked and for the overtime too. I could support my family working in a car wash back then. Now I have to work odd jobs in order to pay my rent and for gas and other bills. 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. I’m organizing with the union because I see how they treat these younger folks. The boss has no respect for us. We work hard and we don’t deserve to be treated like animals.

Many car washes use dangerous chemicals in the cleaning process. Workers are regularly subjected to health and safety hazards, such as exposure to hazardous substances without protective gear. According to the CWWOC report, car washes use highly toxic chemicals throughout the cleaning process, including benzene, zinc, hydrogen fluoride and other metals and acids. Workers regularly are exposed to these chemicals, either through direct contact or in wash wastewater, which is used to pre-soak and shampoo the cars.

Many workers do not have access to protective equipment such as gloves, boots, goggles or face masks. And many have not had any training in the use of hazardous materials as is required by law. Between October 2006 and September 2007, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued 99 citations for deficient hazard communications programs and 92 citations for ineffective injury and illness prevention programs for car washes state­wide.

But in a statement, Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti says things are about to change:

Working men and women in Los Angeles should be paid decent wages that allow them to support their families. We want to make sure that car wash employees are paid fairly and car wash owners abide by requirements to protect the health and safety of their workers.

Members of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign include the AFL-CIO, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, California Labor Federation, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Los Angeles-Orange County Organizing Committee, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Pride At Work and the USW, along with other unions and numerous immigrant rights, human rights and community groups.

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