Carwash workers win union contract

Workers at a Santa Monica, California carwash on Tuesday signed a union contract with owners of Bonus Car Wash making them the first carwash workers in the US to have a collective bargaining agreement with their employer.

“I’m so happy we have a union and a contract,” said Olivero Gomez, who has worked at Bonus for nine years and was one of the workers’ representatives who signed the contract. “Now we can take our breaks, if we’re thirsty, we can drink water, and they respect the schedule and all of the hours we work are in our paycheck. But the biggest difference is we finally get respect as workers.’

The contract was the result of a long struggle that began in 2008 and involved training workers how to organize themselves and to  reach out to the community to build public support.

When the organizing effort at Bonus began, staff from the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN), who have been leading an effort to unionize the carwash workers in the Los Angeles area, helped workers form an on-the-job organizing committee. The organizing committee spoke up for improvements on the job, engaged in work site actions for these improvements, and made presentations to community, labor, and religious groups exposing the unsafe working conditions and other problems at the carwash. The workers asked community supporters to write letters to Bonus’ owner and sign postcards urgings the owner to recognize the union.

One of the main abuses that workers described during their outreach efforts was the widespread practice of wage theft in the carwash industry. Workers are often not paid overtime, not paid for time spent on the job when not washing cars, and generally not paid for work performed.

CLEAN has launched a campaign urging local and state authorities to crackdown on wage theft in the carwash industry. As a result, the Los Angeles City Attorney in 2009 charged the owners of Vermont Hand Wash with wage theft, and the owners were sentenced to one year in jail, fined, and required to pay restitution.

Last year, the California attorney general filed a $6 million lawsuit against the owners of Bonus, one the biggest carwash owners in California. The suit resulted from complaints by workers that their paychecks kept bouncing.

“For almost a year, the checks kept bouncing,” said Eduardo Tapia, a Bonus worker. “We would take the checks to check cashing places but they bounced so frequently that they stopped cashing them and told us they could call the police on us because it was illegal.”

It’s not clear what effect the new contract will have on the lawsuit, but the contract does call for a modest pay increase, health and safety protections, grievance and arbitration procedures, and protection for the workers if the company is sold. The owners agreed that they would try an open another carwash in Venice that was closed in December. Workers at that carwash also had formed an organizing committee and were trying win union recognition.

“This contract is an absolutely historic tide change for the carwash industry,” said Chloe Osmer, Acting Director of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign. “After years of efforts by courageous carwash workers and our community partners, we’ve secured an agreement that marks the beginning of a cleaner carwash industry.”

The newly unionized workers are now members of the United Steelworkers Local 675.

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