Vivan los Carwasheros!

LOS ANGELES – The city’s first union carwash caravan took place here July 24. Fifteen drivers brought their cars to Highland Car Wash on N. Figueroa Street in the L.A. neighborhood of Highland Park, situated between Downtown and Pasadena, off the 110 freeway.

The idea was sparked by a proposal from Susan Gosman, delegate to the L. A. County Federation of Labor from the California State Employees Association (CSEA) Retirees Chapter, and yours truly, representing the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981 Southern California Chapter), who floated the idea to Flor Rodriguez, an organizer for the Clean Carwash Campaign, supported by the United Steel Workers and other unions.

What if carwash union supporters all paraded to a specific unionized carwash at a specific date and time, to show support for the carwasheros (for the Spanish-impaired, those are the carwash workers)? And also to support the owner, still relatively rare among a small but ever growing group of 19 carwash locales in L.A., and another three in San Diego, which have agreed to unionize their shops.

Rodriguez and her fellow organizers loved the idea. For all the carwash places they’ve picketed and boycotted over the years, this provided the opportunity to thank and recognize a forward-looking owner who sees the rightness of guaranteed wages and benefits.

I spoke with Ban, the young woman who owns Highland Car Wash, and she said it’s much better now. There’s more teamwork now, and everyone knows what to expect of each other. It’s not such an adversarial relationship as before.

Unionized carwasheros under contract now receive minimum wage (which in California is now $9) plus 2 percent. Their health care is covered by St. John’s, a local hospital and medical care center. And now that many of them will be staying with Highland for a longer term, Ban already has her eye on several employees she’d like to promote. Most carwasheros probably do not see this as a lifelong profession, but for some it may be the only work they can find for a while. Now they have authorized break times, lunch times, set hours, and a staff lounge. It’s about basic respect.

Even slightly above minimum wage is a huge victory for the carwasheros. Although undoubtedly there are decent carwashes to work for, many still pay no wages at all. Workers there rely on tips alone. And at many carwashes, owners top off tips, and steal wages by having workers sit around off the clock until the first car of the day drives in. That’s called wage theft, and this is a business that lends itself easily to it, especially considering that a certain percentage of workers are undocumented. There is a bill pending before the L. A. City Council to ramp up the penalties on employers who steal wages.

The caravan gathered in a park only a few blocks from the carwash. There the drivers decorated their cars with posters reading “Union=A Better Carwash,” “Viva Highland Carwash,” and “Follow Me to a Union Carwash.” They also used crepe paper streamers, balloons, and white window paint for additional signage promoting the union. Rodriguez’s seven year-old son Frankie painted “#1” on his mom’s car, which led off the procession,

Ban greeted all the drivers, and the expressions of thanks went back and forth. She granted everyone in the caravan a $5 discount on whatever service they requested. We knew in advance that tips would be shared among all the carwash workers, which is not, by the way, necessarily standard practice–it varies from place to place.

And for everyone–caravan drivers, workers, and owners–the Clean Carwash Campaign set up a table with snacks and homemade lemonade.

Participants came from CSEA, National Writers Union, L. A. County Federation of Labor, AFSCME, United Teachers Los Angeles retiree chapter, Workmen’s Circle, and the Communist Party. The campaign made ample use of twitter, Facebook, and other social media to spread news and photos of the expedition to Highland Park.

The thought is now to promote a monthly caravan to different union carwashes in town, and develop a following, like the peripatetic gourmet food trucks that have become an L. A. icon. Stay tuned for more carwashero news!

Photo: Eric Gordon/PW


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.