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Economy of the Squeegee: Carwasheros Organizing Across the Country

(Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

In major urban centers, car washing is an industry that relies on full-time labor. Like many other low-wage jobs in the American service economy, the workers who perform this labor are mainly adults with families to support, and they are often recent immigrants. Once considered unorganizable, the “carwasheros” (as the carwash employees call themselves) are now standing up. They are demanding to be taken seriously as employees who shouldn’t be expected to survive on a teenager’s summer salary.

Recent victories have resulted in some of the first-ever carwash collective bargaining contracts. In Queens, New York, workers organized with the backing of an unusual community-labor alliance – a joint effort by Make the Road New York and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store (RWDSU) union. They succeeded in winning better, standardized pay scales and job protections in their first contract in June. At a carwash in Santa Monica, California, workers won their first contract in 2011 as members of the United Steelworkers Local 675 and with the support of a broad-based Los Angeles coalition called the Clean Carwash Campaign. Efforts in these regions are expanding, and they are being augmented by new organizing drives in places such as Chicago and Santa Fe, New Mexico. With all this activity, the carwasheros represent the latest chapter in a larger national narrative. They are joining the ranks of low-wage workers at places like WalMart and McDonald’s who are insisting that they will no longer accept exploitative wages and working conditions.

Because Chicago has been one of the cities where new and innovative carwasheros organizing has been taking place, I sought insights from ARISE Chicago organizer Adam Kader. ARISE Chicago is a community-based organization that has spearheaded a coalition to support the local carwash workers – with help from churches, synagogues, and the steelworkers’ union. The group has been visionary in combining shop-floor organizing, community solidarity and policy work designed to alter the public conversation about the area economy.

In 2012, ARISE Chicago partnered with the University of Illinois-Chicago to conduct a survey of about 200 carwash workers at 74 carwashes throughout the city. It is rare for a local workers’ rights group to conduct such rigorous examination of a service industry and to seek to reshape a citywide debate about the economics of how low-wage workers are paid. The study yielded fascinating results. It uncovered a complex quilt of mostly illegal wage structures, ranging from people working for tips alone, to working for an hourly wage of $1 to $5 plus tips, to working for a flat daily rate regardless of hours worked. In the final report, the authors concluded that they were looking at “an entire industry that regards violations of employment law and hazardous conditions as normal business practices.”

When I talked with Kader, he provided a portrait of the carwash industry in Chicago and a sense of the growing organizing momentum around this issue. To begin, I asked him who the carwasheros are.

“These are people who have been working in the industry for a while – and in some cases actually have worked for their current employer for quite a while,” Kader said. “When we talk about carwashes, we’re talking about full-service hand carwashes or luxury hand carwashes. We’re not talking about if you go to the gas station and there’s an automated carwash attached to it. It’s a labor-intensive industry. In Chicago, it’s typically an indoor facility where you drive in and there’s a line of workers that each have a different role in kind of an assembly line. A full-scale detailing carwash can be upwards of $100, and as the clientele that typically supports these businesses are wealthier individuals; the cars that you see going into these establishments are luxury cars.

“We believe that wages should be much higher in this industry and they should certainly be legal. Currently, the vast majority of these establishments are not paying the legal minimum wage. But beyond that, we think that these could be family-supporting jobs, decent jobs, because even if the employer has to pass off some of the costs to the consumer, we believe that these are consumers who would be willing to pay more for that car to be washed if it meant that workers were being paid properly.”

I asked him to say more about what the working conditions are like.

“I think the first time I heard from a carwash worker was when he came in and had a typical story saying, ‘I’m not being paid overtime; I’m not being paid minimum wage. I’m being paid a random amount each week regardless of the hours I work.’

“Then we heard increasingly disturbing stories, like about one location [where employees were] being paid piecemeal. For every coupon, every ticket that signifies a car that’s been washed, you get paid a few cents. At another place there essentially is no wage, with employees relying exclusively on tips from consumers. That means you could work a 12-hour shift – and 12 hours from 7 to 7 is a typical carwash worker’s schedule – and could conceivably go home with $25.

“The worst of all,” Kader said, “was a carwash where workers explained that they had to pay in the morning – they paid $12 to the manager for the so-called privilege of working there. And in exchange they had the ‘freedom’ – like a day laborer or something – where they could come and go as they chose in terms of what days they worked.”

Kader said that, in addition to the wage and hour violations, the carwash workers face serious health and safety hazards. “A carwash worker who came to us lost a thumb on some of the equipment he was operating,” he said. “And he hadn’t been trained in the equipment. There weren’t safety protocols, and the company was not paying for his health care costs.” Indeed, lack of health care coverage is a major concern: “People imagine somebody with a hose and a sponge,” Kader said. “People don’t think about the very expensive machinery that’s being operated. They don’t think about the fast pace of things, the small, small quarters in which workers are working that really lend themselves to health and safety problems.”

I asked Kader what he thinks is motivating carwash workers to join together.

“People are aware of the fact that they’re being exploited,” he said. “They might not know specific legal statutes, but they certainly know when they’re not being treated with dignity. What workers often don’t know is what exactly can be done about it. In an industry like carwashes, there’s no history of struggle, there’s not a historical carwash workers’ union. I think mostly workers didn’t know where to turn until we had a public launch of a carwash campaign, where we had carwash workers speak. I think 26 news outlets covered us. So we had all kinds of workers calling up and saying ‘I’ve been a carwash worker for a decade. I’ve never gotten paid overtime wages, and I want to join.'”

One interesting aspect of ARISE Chicago is its ties with labor and faith-based organizations. Kader emphasized the importance of both, starting with religious groups.

“Our interfaith identity is so important,” he said. “We’re located in a church, so that when workers come into this space, it signals that this is a safe place, literally a sanctuary, so let’s talk about your workplace.” Kader added that it’s good for potential carwash customers to see clergy members standing side by side with the carwasheros. “Public image is really important,” he said, “and so what neighbors think, what faith leaders think, that really matters.”

As for unions, Kader pointed to the carwasheros campaign as an example of how social movement unionism nationally is reaching out to low-wage service workers. “I think – unfairly – the right has claimed unions are strictly special interest groups looking out for an elite group of members,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true, but unions have responded to that challenge by showing that they care about all kinds of workers. They understand that the treatment of low-wage workers in one sector has implications for their own membership, and they care about that. It starts with a shared vision of what a just workplace looks like and what a labor movement looks like. It’s made up not just of labor unions, but of laborers, whether they’re union members or not.”

“This campaign fits into a broader idea of low-wage worker empowerment,” Kader added. “When workers become members, they’re not just working on campaigns in their own workplace: we’re then mobilizing them to action on behalf of other workers. We see this as not an isolated event in which we’re just organizing 650 carwash workers in the city of Chicago. We know we’re building power for bigger and better things. We’ve changed the whole industry, and that matters.”

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