By Crystal Shaw
Manuel Aguilar has been employed in the carwash business for 20 years, but work hasn't always been good for him. He’s been denied drinking water and lunch breaks and had his food thrown in the garbage by owners. Manuel has even had his wages and tips stolen by employers who used tactics like paying him for fewer hours than he worked or denying him overtime.
Such treatment violates the California Labor Code, but car wash owners mostly ignored the section requiring them to post a bond and keep records in regards to car washer wages, hours and working conditions.
“We thought our rights and support did not exist for car wash workers,” remembers Manuel, “We were told by others that if we fought, we would lose our jobs.” But for five years, Manuel and his coworkers worked with the CLEAN Carwash Campaign and its Carwash Worker Center. In 2013, they won Assembly Bill 1387, the Carwash Worker Law, “an act to amend” sections of the Labor Code The new law, which went into effect January 2014, increases each employer’s “bond requirement amount to $150,000, but would exempt an employer from that requirement if the employer has a collective bargaining agreement in place....” The bond exists to give workers an avenue to collect unpaid wages in the event that their wages are stolen. Additionally, the sunset provision was removed from the law entirely. Suddenly, the number of union car washes in Southern California has risen from three to 25 and still rising.
Manuel paints a clear picture of the conditions he was subjected to. “I have seen many injustices done to coworkers, and to myself also. Before we weren’t allowed to take lunch breaks; we would work ten hours and get paid only for four hours. Also, a few times the owner’s brother tried to hit me because I would request my rights.”
Manuel is married with two children. He has supportive family and a wife who’s always stood by him even when he says there were days when he would come home bitter and angry from the treatment he was receiving at his workplace. He knew something had to change, but he and his coworkers feared losing their jobs if they tried to fight back alone.
The CLEAN Carwash Campaign, funded by Liberty Hill, grew out of a study by the UCLA Labor Center that exposed the conditions of the carwash industry in Los Angeles. According to Neidi Dominguez, former Strategic Campaign Coordinator, the CLEAN Carwash campaign is a coalition of leaders from many parts of the community including labor, other workers rights groups, the faith community and organizers from the environmental movement. All mobilized to support carwasheros in Los Angeles.
AB 1387 really put power into the hands of the organized workers. But the road was long and the fight was hard. Over the past seven years that the campaign has been active, workers and organizers have had to take as many as three trips up to Sacramento to fight for the amendments. According to Rosemarie Molina, current Strategic Campaign Coordinator for the campaign, “Manuel was a big part of helping us get that passed. The workers themselves were willing to go up to Sacramento, take the time out of their lives and their family life to share their story with these legislators who can make these changes. Manuel definitely led that. Last spring we had over 35 workers go up in a two month period. We would take a car, a van, anything we could get our hands on to go up there and take advantage of the opportunity for workers to advocate for their bill.”
Today, nearly 200 workers at 23 Southern California car washes have signed collective bargaining agreements with their bosses, with more campaigns on the way at other locations.
As for Manuel, he’s not afraid anymore. He doesn't worry about losing his job and now receives pay for the hours that he has worked. With the improvements made to the Law, car wash workers have the leverage to ask for paid sick days, holiday pay and vacation time in their contracts. In the coming years, this will be the new standard that workers are pushing for in the industry. And finally, because of the database that the law created, it is public information now which carwashes are registered or are unregistered— so the workers have been instrumental in continuing to reform the industry themselves. According to Neidi, “From the very beginning of this campaign, Liberty Hill was at the trenches with us, funding the work that we do.” She continued, “The courage of the workers and what they've done for themselves in this community shows that when you have foundations like Liberty Hill supporting those efforts, there is really real change for the future.”
Results: An industry which once employed thousands of workers who were paid only in tips is changing rapidly. Southern California car washes went from 0 to 25 unionized contracts in just three years. Powered by Liberty Hill.