First car wash workers' union in U.S. history wins contract

A step forward for the labor movement

Car wash workers in Los Angeles are cleaning up the industry by fighting for and winning union representation.

Southern California car wash workers signed a union contract on Oct. 25, making the employer the first and only unionized car wash in the nation.

The two-year labor agreement with Bonus Car Wash in Los Angeles will cover 30 workers and includes a 2 percent wage increase, health and safety protections, grievance and arbitration procedures and protections for workers if the car wash is sold. The contract also guarantees rights that protect workers from being unfairly punished or dismissed. In the long run, workers are creating a way to clean up and improve the entire carwash industry.

During the organizing period, workers faced rampant abuse of their rights. They were fired for speaking out about working conditions and organizing. Car wash workers still face the challenge of a highly fragmented ownership of the industry—it is estimated that in LA County alone there are 500 car washes and nearly 10,000 workers.

Because the industry’s work force is largely undocumented immigrants afraid to speak out, car washes have been known to violate basic labor and immigration laws with little risk of penalty. Laborers have been subject to pay that is often far less than minimum wage—often times their earnings are tips alone—dangerous conditions such as exposure to toxic chemicals without basic protective gear and harassment and intimidation by owners.

The push for unionization started in March 2008, when labor groups formed the Community Labor Environmental Action Network after reports of appalling working conditions surfaced. Since then, workers at Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica organized committees to push for fair wages and better working conditions, made presentations to local community groups to gain public support and engaged in work-site actions.

The contract marks the first agreement won by the CLEAN Car Wash Campaign. This victory will not only end the abuses suffered by these Los Angeles car wash workers, but will also lay the foundation for future organizing in the car wash industry. The majority of workers need and want a way to improve their jobs and working conditions.

Many of these workers have gotten involved in other political efforts such as working for immigration reform or to pass a wage theft ordinance. The union represents a higher level of political organization that can advance the struggle on both workplace conditions and social justice in a broader sense.

Chloe Osmer, an organizer with the CLEAN Car Wash Campaign, said that workers across the city are inspired and excited. They have been receiving calls from people who want to organize and improve working conditions at their workplaces and also from employers who want to understand more about what it might mean to have a union. This momentum needs to be used to encourage other workers to speak up about abuses and to encourage other car wash owners to respect their workers' right to organize as well.

This clear victory sets an example to other workers in the Los Angeles area as well as throughout the United States, proving that despite the working conditions in an industry marked by a history of labor violations, constant aggression from the capitalist class and a slumping economy, victory is possible if workers organize and fight back.

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