Friday, November 24

UCLA students, alumni team up with CLEAN Carwash Campaign to boycott car washes, fight for worker rights

Workers, campaign staff and UCLA student interns march on May 1 in support of worker rights and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Workers, campaign staff and UCLA student interns march on May 1 in support of worker rights and the Employee Free Choice Act. Flavia Casas / Daily Bruin

During the summer of 2008, Aura Lopez, a worker at Best Way Hand Car Wash in Los Angeles, was standing on the wheel of a truck while washing its window when she fell and landed on a metal key.

The fall damaged her spinal column. She should have been using a ladder, but she said the owner told his workers he did not have the money to buy more.

UCLA students, alumni and university labor programs have been incessantly fighting alongside the CLEAN Carwash Campaign for the rights of car wash workers like Lopez.

The CLEAN campaign, which stands for Community Labor Environmental Action Network, began in March 2008 at the UCLA Labor Center. According to its official website, “the CLEAN Carwash Campaign is a joint effort of CLEAN and the Carwash Workers Organizing Committee of the United Steelworkers to raise car wash workers’ standard of living, to secure basic workplace protections, and to address the serious environmental and safety hazards in the Los Angeles car wash industry.”

Best Way Hand Car Wash and Celebrity Car Wash declined to comment on the claims because of lawsuits they are facing. Vermont Hand Wash and Lawndale Car Wash refused to comment. Five Star and Magic Wand were unavailable to give a response.

According to campaign members and car wash workers, industry owners have been exploiting their employees for years.

Instead of taking Lopez to the hospital, the owner took her to a family clinic.

“They didn’t have the adequate doctors to treat me there. When my sister told my employer she was going to take me to a general hospital, he said he wasn’t going to make himself responsible for me,” Lopez said.

The hospital Lopez was treated at informed her that she had the right to press charges. Fearful of losing her job, Lopez initially refused to do so. However, she filed a lawsuit after realizing her employer would not pay the bill two months after her injury.

The lawsuit has yet to see its full way through. Since the accident, Lopez said she suffers constant pain, and she was recently told she needs surgery. Unemployed since the incident, Lopez cannot afford to undergo the operation and is relying on either her insurance’s coverage or the lawsuit to cover the charges.

The primarily immigrant and non-English-speaking workers have been underpaid, overworked and unprotected from hazardous chemicals and dangerous working environments, said Chloe Osmer, strategic campaign coordinator of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign and a UCLA urban planning graduate.

“The campaign’s ultimate goal is to install an industry-wide union,” said Byron Lopez, a fourth-year political science student who interned with CLEAN Carwash Campaign winter quarter.

Byron Lopez, like several other UCLA undergraduates, assisted car wash workers through an internship offered by the UCLA Labor Center. It was mainly split into two parts: participating at the picket lines and doing office work, Byron Lopez said.

Osmer, along with fellow alumni Juliet Ovalle and Betsy Estudillo, are a part of the campaign staff, which directly organizes the workers by educating them about their rights, helping them lead demonstrations, and facilitating communication between workers and government agencies, Ovalle said.

The laborers often receive an underpaid salary of $35-$45 for a 10-12 hour work day or are paid solely in tips, Osmer said.

In addition, the hazardous chemicals that employees are exposed to, combined with their lack of protective gear, caused many workers physical problems.

“If the acid we use lands on our skin, we get rashes on our hands, and it hurts our eyes. … It damages our vision,” said Pedro Guzman, an ex-worker for a car wash.

Guzman, along with a few co-workers and some of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign staff, filed a complaint to Cal/OSHA, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, stating they were unprotected and were suffering physical damages. Guzman and Osmer said they won the citation, forcing the owner to provide the appropriate protective gear.

However, this instance is uncommon, Guzman said. Unfair wages and hazardous working conditions are still highly prevalent throughout the L.A. area. According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, two-thirds of car washes in Los Angeles in the last five years did not comply with one or more state laws.

Lopez is not alone in her situation, Osmer and Guzman said. Many car wash workers are injured on the job but refuse to fight for their rights for fear of losing their position ““ or for those who are illegal immigrants, for fear of being deported.

Both the car wash workers and those involved with the campaign agreed that one of the main reasons these exploitations occur is due to workers’ refusal to speak up ­”“ whether they are afraid or because they are unaware of their rights.

The UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program works with the CLEAN campaign to provide car wash workers with the education and assistance that will help them gain their rights, said Linda Delp, professor at the UCLA School of Public Health and director of the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.

Contrary to what many workers may believe, the agency does not investigate whether the workers are illegal immigrants or not, it is simply there to investigate the complaints they receive, Delp said.

Unfortunately, Cal/OSHA is currently understaffed and underfunded, which severely limits the help it can provide car wash workers, according to Delp and Osmer.

Despite their progress, the workers still have a long way to go, Guzman said. Although he recently quit his position, Guzman continues to fight.

Those with the campaign have all stressed that the community’s compliance with the boycotts is necessary to achieve car wash workers’ rights. The business itself exists because of its customers.

“Very often customers listen to us and leave,” Ovalle said. “But sometimes people don’t care.”

Ovalle said the campaign has significantly hurt Robertson Car Wash economically with their success in the boycotts.

Robertson Car Wash, however, said the allegations are not true, and that it only had one worker who complained he was not receiving his rights.

The campaign’s boycott list consists of the following Pirian family-owned car washes: Vermont Hand Wash, Hollywood Car Wash, Celebrity Car Wash, Five Star Car Wash, Lawndale Car Wash and Magic Wand Car Wash.

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