Workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage, among other things, in New York City in May.

Workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage, among other things, in New York City in May.

Unionized car wash workers in Southern California are demanding rest breaks and shaded areas to eat their lunches, according to several media reports, including this one from the Orange County Register.

As the nation prepares to celebrate Labor Day with picnics and parades, a handful of activists, operating from a shabby storefront in South Los Angeles, are undertaking a bold – and somewhat improbable – campaign.

With the help of the United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO, the nation’s giant labor federation, they’re beginning to organize the region’s roughly 20,000 car wash workers to better their lot – and eventually even join a union.

So far, nearly 200 workers at 23 Southern California car washes have signed collective bargaining agreements with their bosses, and campaigns are underway at other outlets. A new state law is fueling the trend by exempting unionized car washes from posting hefty wage-theft bonds.

“This is a runaway industry,” said Victor Narro, a lawyer at UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education who has led several studies on car washes. “Many workers don’t earn minimum wage. Some work for tips only. They’re often denied rest breaks or shade to eat their lunch. Some are exposed to dangerous chemicals without protective equipment.”

A generation ago, organized labor was often hostile towards immigrants, viewing them as a threat to American workers. But in recent years, as membership has slid in manufacturing industries, unions have expanded their ranks among foreign-born service workers such as hotel maids and office janitors.

Still, the car wash challenge is particularly daunting. A third or more of the workforce is undocumented, according to studies, and many workers speak little English. Eighty percent of car washes are operated by a single owner, a fact that makes organizing difficult.

Read the rest of the story on the Register website.