News And Politics

South L.A. becomes home to two of nation's three unionized car washes

Feb. 21, 2012, 5:05 p.m.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, pictured above at left, said that the idea of car wash workers unionizing isn't a "radical [notion]." To his right is Manuel Martinez, who has worked at Vermont Car Wash for five years and who also spoke at the press conference.

Two South Los Angeles car washes have become the second and third union car washes in the nation, announced the CLEAN Carwash Campaign at Vermont Car Wash on Tuesday afternoon.

The owners and employees of Vermont Car Wash (at Vermont and Gage Avenues) and Navas Car Wash (at Florence and Hoover Avenues) have negotiated a union contract hammering out a two-percent raise for its workers. It also provides a channel of communication for wage negotiation, as well as protection from unfair termination, the promise of fair scheduling and safe working conditions, and a procedure for grievance arbitration.

Authorities have long alleged that many car washes violate basic labor and immigration laws with almost no risk of penalty due to a largely undocumented workforce that is afraid to speak out.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was present for the announcement and commended the two car washes for agreeing to the union, saying that all workers deserve respect and dignity.

"Every one of us should acknowledge that when you work hard, and you're playing by the rules, you ought to get a decent wage," he said. "That's not asking for welfare. That's fair."

The mayor, alternating between English and Spanish, also implored other car washes to follow Vermont's and Navas' lead.

"These aren't radical notions, everybody," he said. "These are things that everybody agreed to in the social compact that we all believe in -- but obviously there are some that don't. So we're here to say to them: You need to join Navas and Vermont car wash. You need to do the right thing. You need to treat your workers with respect. You need to pay them a decent wage. You need to give them a lunch break. The things all of us take for granted."

The CLEAN Carwash Campaign is a joint effort of CLEAN -- Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network -- and the Carwash Workers Organizing Committee of the United Steelworkers to raise Los Angeles carwash workers' standard of living, secure basic workplace protections and address serious hazards in the L.A. industry. The coalition estimates that there are between 7,000-10,000 car wash workers in the greater Los Angeles area.

The first car wash to unionize was Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica. One employee of Bonus Car Wash told the Los Angeles Times that supervisors there "didn't treat [employees] like people." But in 2011, Bonus Car Wash workers unionized -- becoming the first in the nation to do so -- and established procedures to hear workers' grievances, standardized rules on wages and hours and required any new owners of the carwash to abide by the rules of the new labor pact. Workers also demanded a two-percent raise in those negotiations.

Also present was Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a voluntary federation of 57 national and international labor unions. He said that the car washers "represent the core beliefs of the labor movement."

"We believe in hard work and we believe that people who work hard should have a voice on the job to improve their lives and to build a better future for their families and their communities," he said. "These workers here today don't just embody those basic principles -- they came together to take a stand for their beliefs against all odds, and that's truly inspiring for each and every one of us."

One of those workers, Miguel Angel, 45, said the event was an important display of solidarity. "It offers support to all the car washers and encourages them to continue onward," he said in Spanish. "We have the support of all of our companions here -- it's great to be here with them." Angel works at another car wash in L.A. which is not unionized.

Fifty-year-old Manuel Martinez, an five-year employee at Vermont Car Wash who spoke at the press conference, said that other car washers shouldn't be afraid -- that they should fight for what he called "human rights."

"We're in this struggle because we've been treated badly," Martinez said in Spanish, calling the event a "triunfio" -- a triumph. When asked if it was a sign of bigger changes to come in the Los Angeles carwash industry, he pointed skyward.

"Primero Dios," he said -- God willing.

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