Justice for Car Wash Workers Too Radical for L.A.:
by James Parks, Aug 19, 2009
Looks like a billboard supporting workers’ rights is too controversial for the corporate hacks who seem to run Los Angeles.
The billboard, outside the Vermont Hand Wash in downtown L.A., carried this “radical” statement: “Wash Away Injustice! Support Carwash Workers.” Before it was unveiled, the Vermont Hand Wash, one of the most notorious anti-worker car washes in the city, pressured CBS Billboard to pull it down before a rally took place in support of car wash workers who are fighting to join a union to improve conditions in the industry. Never mind that the language and design of the billboard had been approved in advance.
As the workers took down the sign, car wash workers and their supporters chanted, “Shame on you!” and “Don’t take it down!” The rally, with hundreds of workers in the Los Angeles area joining AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, members of Congress and local union, clergy and community leaders for the unveiling, carried on below the symbolically blank billboard.
Henry Huerta, director of the Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) campaign, said:
"We came here today to unveil a billboard with a message to Angelinos to “Support Carwash Workers” in their struggle against exploitation by the owners of this carwash. Unfortunately, the company that owns this billboard caved to pressure from the Pirian family. They have violated our First Amendment Rights to Free Speech and are complicit in this employer’s violation of workers’ rights to Free Association. SHAME ON CBS BILLBOARD! AND SHAME ON THE PIRIAN FAMILY!"
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Attorney filed criminal charges against Benny and Nisan Pirian, the owners, and Manuel Reyes, manager of the Vermont Hand Wash, with 220 counts of criminal misconduct altogether—including conspiracy, witness intimidation, grand theft, brandishing a deadly weapon, failure to pay wages and failure to comply with wage orders of the state’s Industrial Welfare Commission regulating workplace conditions.
Vermont Hand Wash worker Pedro Guzman said:
"We have suffered retaliation and intimidation by the owner, Benny Pirian. He took us into his office and interrogated us about our union activities. And he even offered to compensate me if I would work on his side against the union and my companeros. But I would never do that. Our struggle continues with the incredible support from unions, students, faith groups, old people, and young people, all of them willing to come out and sweat under the sun to show us their solidarity."
Sweeney told the crowd the car wash workers’ struggle is a perfect example of why the Employee Free Choice Act is needed. (Molly Note- the official unions in the USA seem to always promote the Employee Free Choice Act as the be all and end all salvation of the American labour movement. I think that an objective comparison to the civilized world in which similar legislation is in place shows that it hardly reduces the difficulty of organizing by any significant amount.)
"These workers have gone through hell trying to form a union to win just living standards.
No worker should face that treatment in this country we share. In America, every worker should enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of association.
In America, every corporation should be held accountable to the law. In America, every worker should be free to join a union and bargain for a better life."
Last year, the mostly immigrant car wash workers throughout Los Angeles formed the Carwash Workers Organizing Committee (CWOC) of the United Steelworkers (USW) to raise their standard of living, secure basic workplace protections and address the serious environmental and safety hazards in their industry.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also issued a complaint in June alleging that Vermont’s management targeted and then fired three workers because of their organizing activities.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) reminded the audience the state’s Car Wash Worker law, passed in 2003, is set to expire this year if it is not reauthorized by the legislature. The law requires all car wash operators to register with the state as a means to promote good labor practices. Chu, who helped pass the law as a member of the state assembly, called on California regulators to reauthorize and fully enforce the law. (Time for another Molly Note here. If this law was so effective then why didn't it prevent the present abuses at the Vermont hand Wash ?????. This seems like rather special pleading to me. Is legislation some magic answer ?)
The effort to gain justice for the “carwasheros” is being led by CLEAN, a coalition of more than 130 organizations, including labor unions, immigrant rights organizations and environmental and worker health and safety advocates, working to improve working conditions in the car wash industry.
Huerta said the tragedy is that although the Pirians are among the worst offenders we have encountered in the industry, they are not alone.
The exploitative treatment of workers is rampant throughout this industry. Carwashes are simply sweatshops operating in plain site.
But with support from unions and the community, carwash workers from across the city are building a union and building a movement—for respect, dignity, and fairness on the job.