Yoel Matute had worked at a Santa Monica car wash for seven years and was upset because he believed he wasn’t being paid for all the hours he worked. So in 2012 he decided to sue in court to recover his wages.
Matute soon got an unwelcome surprise. His employer attempted to enforce an arbitration agreement – an agreement Matute didn’t even know he had signed — preventing him from filing a lawsuit. Instead, the agreement mandated that the dispute be heard in arbitration, an out-of-court process that generally favors employers over workers like Matute.
When he had originally applied for his job Matute was handed what he thought was a work application. Some parts of the document were in Spanish, others in English. Matute, who is from Honduras and can read little Spanish and virtually no English, was given just a few minutes to review it, and he did not understand any of the sections in English.
It was just another summer backyard barbeque. A few veggie patties followed by a few burgers on the grill. Some drinks. Some salads. Maybe a couple dozen people. There were neighbors, several community activist types, a couple of clergy and a handful of other religious folks, plus a few workers from a local hotel and some iron workers. Wait, who?
Yes, the gathering was called together by CLUE – Clergy and Laity United for Economic-Justice – in a supporter’s back yard. We met to share some summer food, deepen our friendships and to mark some victories that might otherwise go without notice – benchmarks that shouldn’t be forgotten so quickly.
One victory involved a Santa Monica hotel. Workers there secured a “labor peace agreement” with management that protects some basic worker rights. Employees can now post signs about the benefits of a union knowing they will not get torn down and destroyed.
Los Angeles County’s car wash workers seemed to face overwhelming odds when they began to organize a few years back. Carwasheros considered themselves lucky if their bosses simply paid them for the correct number of hours they had worked, let alone if they received the legal minimum wage – some were expected to work for only tips. Many car wash employees were undocumented immigrants in an industry known for its high turnover and were counted as among society’s most vulnerable workers.
And yet, with the help of the United Steel Workers union’s CLEAN Car Wash Campaign, car washers began to prevail in a series of court battles that resulted in owners being ordered to improve working conditions and to conduct their accounting practices above-board. In 2012 the state’s Department of Industrial Relations assessed more than $4.8 million in wages and civil penalties against California car wash owners,
In major urban centers, car washing is an industry that relies on full-time labor. Like many other low-wage jobs in the Americanservice economy, the workers who perform this labor are mainly adults with families to support, and they are often recent immigrants. Once considered unorganizable, the “carwasheros” (as the carwash employees call themselves) are now standing up. They are demanding to be taken seriously as employees who shouldn’t be expected to survive on a teenager’s summer salary.
Recent victories have resulted in some of the first-ever carwash collective bargaining contracts. In Queens, New York, workers organized with the backing of an unusual community-labor alliance – a joint effort by Make the Road New York and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store (RWDSU) union. They succeeded in winning better, standardized pay scales and job protections in their first contract in June. At a carwash in Santa Monica, California, workers won their first contract in 2011 as members of the United Steelworkers Local 675 and with the support of a broad-based Los Angeles coalition called the Clean Carwash Campaign.
This legislative session brought some exciting victories as well as some deep disappointments. Labor accomplished big things this year that benefit all Californians but when it came to advancing worker protections, many of those bills were vetoed.
One of organized labor’s unlikeliest bright spots lately has been the United Steelworkers’ unionization of car wash employees. In an economy that has moved with blinding velocity from a Keynesian to Dickensian model, the largely Hispanic-immigrant labor pool available to car wash owners has been among the most grossly exploited in America. Their language and documentation barriers aside, “carwasheros” are known to toil in the hot sun for less than minimum wage – sometimes only for tips – and can be fired at the drop of a rag.
Which is what has made their solidarity and winning of three union contracts through the Los Angeles Clean Carwash Campaign all the more inspiring. This week Los Angeles carwasheros and the Southern California Library invite you to celebrate these victories by patronizing Vermont Car Wash at 6219 S. Vermont Avenue (at Gage).
After a year-long campaign by labor and community groups on behalf of carwasheros in what is traditionally a progressive town, the City of Santa Monica will no longer contract with car-wash businesses that are not in compliance with federal and state employment laws.
In addition to strict implementation by the city’s Finance Department of existing policies that require those receiving City dollars to comply with laws, the Santa Monica City Attorney’s office will investigate practices at all four car washes located in Santa Monica as part of its Consumer Affairs operations.
Rather than employ public workers to wash city trucks, police cars and other vehicles, Santa Monica, like many other cities, contracts with local car washes to keep its vehicles clean. After California’s Attorney General reached a settlement with Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica that resulted in the business agreeing to a contract with the United Steelworkers Union,