Cardinal, Los Angeles Mayor Hear from Car Wash Workers
National Workers’ Rights Board hearing exposes wage theft, safety violations; highlights need for collective bargaining for car wash workers in Los Angeles, Nation.
Yesterday at Los Angeles City Hall, members of the Jobs with Justice National Workers’ Rights Board (WRB) were joined by other distinguished guests to hear gripping testimony about the hazards facing car wash workers. Over 250 union and community members packed the room to overflowing to hear from workers, consumer, health and safety advocates, and United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addressed the panel and the audience, thanking the WRBs’ leadership for protecting workers, and praising the courage of the workers who are speaking out. The Mayor pledged to remain engaged in this fight. “We look forward to reviewing the recommendations from this board for addressing abuses in this industry,” said the Mayor. “It’s important the public understand what’s going on at car washes in Los Angeles.”
Car wash workers reported being paid less than half of California’s $8 an hour minimum wage and some reported they are paid only in tips. Others have faced illegal harassment and threats for attempting to form a union. Car wash legal violations also include underpaying workers, hiring minors, operating without workers’ compensation insurance, and denying workers meal and rest breaks.
Among the workers testifying at the hearing was Aura Lopez, who worked at the Best Way Car Wash. In 2008, she severely injured her back in a fall on the job and was refused proper treatment. “A month after the accident, the owner saw me talking to a union organizer about how to get help for my injuries. The owner then fired me and told me never to come back to the car wash.”
Maria Aide Hernandez, a former cashier at Auto Spa Express, witnessed many of these violations: “I saw my coworkers work for far less than minimum wage for 50-60 hours a week with no overtime pay, I saw workers have accidents because they were not provided with basic safety equipment, and I saw the owner fire or reduce the hours of workers who they suspected of supporting a union.” Ms. Hernandez left the car wash when the owner paid her with bounced checks, leaving her unable to support her two sons.
The testimony highlighted how unionization and collective bargaining would combat abuse and improve conditions in the industry more effectively than piecemeal enforcement by regulatory agencies. According to Ms. Hernandez, “As workers we can’t just rely on filing legal complaints to protect our rights. An individual claim doesn’t stop the car wash from committing the same violations in the future. Car wash workers need a union to protect our rights and improve our working conditions.”
Leo W. Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers International Union, added, “Without a union contract, car wash workers will have to continue filing wage claim after wage claim, lawsuit after lawsuit, and industry-wide standards will remain nothing but a dream.”
After listening to expert testimony and powerful first-hand accounts from the workers on these and other issues, the Board released several findings and recommendations. They include:
- Urging the City of Los Angeles to do business only with those car washes that have signed the CLEAN Car wash Agreement, in which employers pledge to abide by minimum employment, health and safety, and environmental standards and to respect workers’ right to organize a union free from intimidation, harassment or other interference.
- Urging all LA car wash businesses to sign the CLEAN Car wash Agreement, and urge the Western Car wash Association to recommend to its members that they sign the CLEAN Car wash Agreement.
- Requesting that the City of Los Angeles review whether existing local laws and procedures regulating the car wash industry could be improved to enhance compliance of car washes with wage and hour, health and safety, and environmental laws.
- Recommending that the California Department of Industrial Relations spearhead a multi-agency task force to investigate complaints and prioritize the collection of stolen wages.
“It is painful but very important for us to hear the personal experiences of workers facing coercion, intimidation by their bosses, and the impact this has had on them, as well as their families and the community,” said Mr. Gerard. “My union has a long and proud history of fighting for the rights of low-wage and immigrant workers. Be assured the United Steelworkers will continue to stand with all car wash workers in Los Angeles for as long as it takes to organize a local union where they can act collectively to better their lives.”
Several TV outlets picked up the story, as did the LA Times.