Faces of the Movement: Manuel Aguilar
“We weren’t allowed to take lunch breaks,” Manuel Aguilar says of one carwash where he worked. “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.”
When people hear about conditions carwasheros, or carwash workers, have faced, they often say, “But isn’t that against the law?”
Yes, the kind of treatment Manuel Aguilar has experienced throughout 20-plus years on the job violates the California Labor Code. But the car wash owners he worked for mostly ignored requirements that they post a bond and keep records on 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.”
Then Manuel and other workers joined the CLEAN Carwash Campaign and its Carwash Worker Center (one of 10 Los Angeles worker centers supported by Liberty Hill). They went time after time to Sacramento and testified about their experiences. It took six years, but finally they won passage of California’s Carwash Worker Law, which went into effect January 2014. The law increases the amount each employer must post for a bond to $150,000 (which gives workers an avenue to collect unpaid wages owed), but exempts employers who have collective bargaining agreements.
Suddenly, the number of union car washes in Southern California rose from three to 26 and is still rising.
From the beginning, says Manuel, his wife supported his organizing activities. “She would tell me not to be afraid, that everything was going to work out—and yes, we were able to accomplish this.” His elementary school aged son, too, was part of the push for justice. “He was always involved in the campaign. He says when he grows up, he will also be an organizer!”