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.