My sons and I wash my car in a hose-and-bucket-water-fight affair on the driveway. Most of the time I eschew car washes. But when the internal grime on the backseat reaches a level even my boys can’t bear, we go to the professionals. The Carwasheros.
It’s hard work for the several thousand (mostly) men working as car washers (or “carwasheros” in Spanglish) in L.A. County. Repetitive physical labor, constant exposure to harsh chemicals causing asthma and burning skin, and long hours that frequently go unpaid. These are among the facts alleged in a lawsuit filed today by MALDEF — car washes’ dirty little secrets.
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. I learned about it through Rabbi Amy Bernstein of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, who herself had learned about it from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE)-LA. My guess is that most car wash customers are similarly unaware of these facts.
“What about respect for human dignity?” Pastor Jim Conn asked at a rally in May 2012, coinciding with the filing of a civil rights lawsuit against one particularly egregious owner. “All traditions believe in justice,” said Pastor Conn. Added Rabbi Bernstein, “Torah commands us not to oppress others, especially those who are easiest to oppress, to not sit idly by.”
Could it be that that owners expect customers to turn our heads to the possibility of exploitation, to sit idly by paging through a magazine? To occupy our minds with e-mail, to-do lists, or browsing the card racks inside? Are carwasheros part of an invisible class of workers we would rather not see because it’s easier not to think about painful things?
Happily, car wash patrons do not have to be unwitting conspirators in these misdeeds any longer. Last year, Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica became the first in the nation to allow its workers to join a union, to pay them fairly and treat them with dignity. Two more car washes in south Los Angeles followed suit.
There’s the word: union. Let’s take this head on, shall we? There is a growing negative perception of “unions” arising mostly out of practices of civil servants’ public employees unions. So let’s recall that the purpose of unions is to protect vulnerable workers — the voiceless, the abused, the endangered — like the carwasheros (none of whom is asking for a pension or retirement at age 52). If ever there was a situation calling for a group to speak out in unison for fair treatment, this is it.
A fellow human being. A person who struggles to feed his family, who helps his child with homework, and who strives to build a better life. A person with a history and a future.
Now we know. And we can do something about it.
The good news: When your car gets skeevy like mine, you can help by patronizing businesses who treat workers fairly, and letting the owners know that’s why you chose their business. You can also ask your local car wash about their practices, and let them know that it matters to you how they treat their workers. Here are the good guys I know about:
Bonus Car Wash
2800 Lincoln Blvd (at Ashland)
Santa Monica, CA 90405
6219 South Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90044
801 W. Florence Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90044
For more information about the CLEAN Carwash Campaign contact Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.