"Carwasheros" Cleaning Up L.A.'s Carwash Industry

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The Los Angeles area is notorious for the plethora of cars that clog its roads and highways. Less known, however, are the rampant labor violations prevalent in LA’s carwash industry, which have become the next frontier in the fight for economic justice and immigrant rights.

In the Los Angeles area, there are over 500 car washes in operation. Collectively, they employ more than 10,000 workers, many of whom toil in an environment rife with abuses. Many Carwasheros attest to spending months working for tips alone, and going home with less than $40 in their pocket after putting in grueling 10-hour days without breaks. Despite their hard work, many are routinely denied overtime pay and rest, and are threatened or fired when they advocate for their rights. Workers also are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals in car cleaning products. Experiences like this are systemic in a work environment that routinely exploits its work base, mainly comprised of immigrants or undocumented workers.

Carwasheros in the Los Angeles area are fighting back - and in doing so, have sparked a movement at the intersection of labor and immigrant rights. Workers are coming forward with their stories, and making connections with faith-based movements like CLUE-LA, labor groups like the United Steelworkers union and the AFL-CIO, and immigrants’ rights groups. They are lifting the veil on an industry rife with exploitation and abuse, and in doing so, are facilitating impactful and wide-reaching change across the country.

In 2011, Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica became the first unionized carwash in the nation, thanks to the efforts of the carwasheros and support from the community. Shortly after, two more in South Los Angeles became unionized. The workers have since been successful in raising the profile of unjust working conditions at carwashes who contract with the City of Santa Monica. The City is sensitive to the need to protect carwash workers’ rights, and has committed to enforce those rights.

Recently, four carwasheros, with representation by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), have filed a lawsuit seeking class action status against a common carwash owner of three washes in the Southern California area, demanding justice for years of mistreatment and extreme working conditions. Last month, former employees at a Brooklyn, New York, carwash filed a federal suit alleging similar working conditions to those in Santa Monica.

All of us can play a role in ensuring safe and equal working conditions for carwasheros. As consumers, we can choose to patronize only unionized carwashes. We can make educated and ethical choices by investigating the labor practices of carwashes with whom we choose to do business, boycotting those that fail to recognize the rights of their employees - and letting them know why.

In doing so, we can leverage our spending power to help facilitate change, and use our pocketbooks to help propel this movement forward.

Reverend Erin Tamayo is a Presbyterian minister and an organizer for CLUE-L.A. (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).