The campaign by car wash employees for fair wages and decent work in the Los Angeles area gained a major boost yesterday when the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution strongly endorsing efforts of car wash workers to secure just wages, safe working conditions and the freedom to organize a union.
In recent months, the mostly immigrant car wash workers throughout Los Angeles have formed the Carwash Workers Organizing Committee (CWOC) of the United Steelworkers (USW) to raise their standard of living, secure basic workplace protections and address the serious environmental and safety hazards in their industry.
The Community-Labor-Environmental-Action Network (CLEAN), a coalition of community, labor and faith-based organizations, is a diverse coalition that has been supporting the workers’ campaign by walking picket lines, lobbying politicians and communicating their concerns about the car wash industry to owners and customers.
The passage of the City Council resolution comes just days after the carwasheros (car wash workers) filed complaints with the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health alleging serious health and safety violations at two Los Angeles car washes, both owned by members of the Pirian family. CLEAN called for a boycott of six Pirian family-owned car washes in April because of a history of serious employment, health and safety and environmental law violations at some Pirian family-owned car washes.
Eden Flynn, a health and safety expert who heads the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (SoCal COSH), says the complaints filed against Vermont Hand Wash and Hollywood Car Wash “reveal shocking violations of our state’s health and safety regulations.”
Among other serious violations, management has not provided shade and rest breaks for all workers, despite record high temperatures in Los Angeles. These workers are subject to the same risks of heat illness as farm workers in the Central Valley.
Says Bosbely Reyna, one of the workers who filed the complaint against Vermont Hand Wash:
We work in the hot sun drying cars, and when it’s busy we have to go without any break to drink water or cool off in the shade. But we’ve heard about the farm workers who died; we know we have the right to protect ourselves at work, and we know what the boss is doing is illegal.
Workers in the car wash industry are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals in car cleaning products. Prolonged exposure to some of the chemicals found in Los Angeles car washes can cause liver, kidney and heart and central nervous system damage.
The complaint also describes faulty equipment that causes chemical spills, such as a leaking hose that transports acid for wheel cleaning. When workers have used the hose to clean wheels, acid leaked onto their skin.
When the acid touches your skin, it burns and makes your hands peel and crack. We never received any training on what the chemicals are or how to use them, so sometimes the workers mix up window cleaner with the acid and when they spray it onto the windshields it gets in their eyes. Some of the guys have problems seeing for months after that.
In a March 2008 expose of the car wash industry, the Los Angeles Times found that many workers were paid wages as low as $1.63 an hour, less than half the minimum wage, and that workers were not adequately protected from hazardous chemicals. Two-thirds of those inspected by the state’s labor department since 2003 were out of compliance with one or more labor laws.
Councilman Ed Reyes, who introduced the resolution, says car wash workers are some of L.A.’s most exploited workers, but they are organizing to change that.
This resolution calls for an investigation of any city contracts with carwashes, to ensure that the City of Los Angeles does not support law-breaking businesses that are making their profits by exploiting workers.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised the resolution for supporting the workers’ right to have a voice in the workplace:
Supporting this right is the first step to assuring that all Angelenos have access to decent wages and fair working conditions.
The city of Los Angeles has more car washes—430—than any other metropolitan area in the country and there are nearly 18,000 car wash employees in Southern California.
Carwash workers described bathrooms shared by more than 30 people with no soap or toilet paper and toilets clogged for as long as a week at a time.
Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, congratulated the City Council for passing the resolution and said the workers face dangerous conditions
These workers are laboring in the intense sun without breaks and access to shade and water—the same conditions that have taken the lives of farm workers in the Central Valley.
According to charges filed earlier this month by CWOC-USW, management at Vermont Hand Wash has coerced, threatened and retaliated against employees for trying to organize a union. A charge filed on July 15 alleges that a manager threatened one union supporter with physical violence when he showed the worker .38 caliber bullets on one occasion in April and a machete and combat knife on another occasion in June.
In testimony to City Council before the vote, CLEAN coalition allies expressed concern that the owners also are avoiding their legal obligation to pay a living wage under the city’s living wage ordinance. The city has contracts with several car washes, including one owned by Auto Spa Express, Inc., where car wash workers and the CLEAN coalition picketed last week..
Madeline Janis, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), said:
Under the city’s living wage ordinances, companies doing business with the city are required to pay a living wage. We urge the City Council to…launch an investigation into city contracts with carwashes to ensure that carwash workers are being paid what they deserve.
Council President Eric Garcetti explained why he decided to co-author the resolution, saying:
We want to make sure that carwash employees are treated fairly and earn the wages and benefits they deserve. We’ll continue working to ensure that those who work hard are able to support their families and have safe work environments.