Few workers are more poorly treated and generally ignored than those swift moving and hard-working employees of the country's many thousands of car washing facilities. But finally, there's genuine hope that the carwash workers will win much better conditions.
Workers at a major Southern California carwash have won what could very well be just the first of many union contracts in California and elsewhere that will guarantee them decent treatment. The workers are significantly strengthened by their membership in a local of the powerful United Steelworkers union.
Their initial contract, with a major Southern California carwash, is what could be only the first of many union contracts in California and elsewhere that will promise carwash workers decent treatment.
As they had in winning the contract, it's certain they'll have strong backing from a coalition of the Steelworkers, AFL-CIO and hundreds of community and faith organizations that began a unionizing drive three years ago.
The contract terms are modest, but they're an important, badly needed start toward correcting the carwash workers' truly deplorable conditions. As one Steelworkers official said, they generally are treated "like workers in a third-world country."
Most carwash workers are immigrants, many undocumented. A successful organizing drive among them undoubtedly would lead to stepped-up organizing drives among the nation's millions of other immigrant workers, particularly janitors, nursing home aides and security guards.
The AFL-CIO noted that the car wash workers generally "are without the power to fight back against the horrible conditions in which they work." The New York Times reported that "they are too scared to speak out or give their bosses any excuse to fire them."
A veteran car washer, Oliverio Gomez, said bosses at the now unionized firm "didn't treat us like people. What I hope is that future generations who come to work here aren't treated as badly as we were – that they're no longer humiliated, but respected."
Car washers often work 10-hour days, six days a week, often for as little as less than half the legal minimum wage, often for as little as $30 to $40 a day. Some work before, after or even during their scheduled shifts strictly for tips. Many aren't paid for the time they spend waiting for customers to drive in.
The work is dangerous. As the AFL-CIO reported, employers commonly violate health and safety laws, exposing workers to "a variety of toxic chemicals without adequate protective gear and frequently work for extended periods under the sun without rest or shade."
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times estimated that two-thirds of the car washing facilities that have been investigated by California's Labor Department over the past eight years were violating one or more laws. That included underpaying workers, hiring child labor, going without workers compensation insurance and denying workers meal breaks.
Meanwhile, the employers were doing well. Their profits in Los Angeles, for instance, were averaging $1 million a year.
The monetary terms of the car washers' two-year union contract include a modest raise of only about 2 percent, and cover only 30 workers. But whatever the terms, they are an important foundation for better terms in later contracts covering far more workers at other car washing firms.
There are other terms in the contract, however, that are more important than pay raises. The contract guarantees badly needed health and safety protections, prohibits employers from disciplining or firing workers without just cause, including firing those who complain openly about unsafe conditions. And it sets up a formal procedure for settling grievances and a procedure to settle disputes by arbitration.
Although it shouldn't be necessary, but certainly is, the contract requires employers to follow the labor laws that many have been openly violating. Among other things, that will require breaks for workers and paying them for time spent awaiting customers rather than just for their time working.
Above all, as car wash worker Olivereo Gomez declared, the union contract means "we finally get respect as workers."
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.