South LA car wash workers unionize

Until a month ago, workers at Vermont Car Wash had a lot to complain about.

“The owner wasn’t paying us what was fair.We worked 10 hours and would get paid 5. We had no lunch breaks and wouldn’t get any water to drink,” says Manuel Ernesto Martinez.

Manuel Ernesto Martinez is one of the car washers that banded together to start a union at Vermont Car Wash.

The Salvadoran immigrant, who has been working at the car wash for more than four years, says a group of his co-workers finally said “enough!” and started fighting to improve their working conditions, demanding the owner pay them a fair wage.

“In one occasion all of them did a delegation to her and stopped working on a Saturday, a busy day to ask her to listen to their demands,” says CLEAN car wash campaign legal organizer Neydi Dominguez. “Through conversations, through action, community support, but most importantly the bravery and courage of the workers to really have conviction that this was the right thing to do, stay firm and continue the fight.”

Dominguez says it was this show of unity that forced owner Mi-Sook Kim, a Korean immigrant, to accept the unionization of the workers.

Thanks to the contract, they will now earn $8.16 an hour, they got a 2 percent raise, they’ll get uninterrupted lunch breaks and two 10 minute breaks, as required by California law.

Luis Nava, owner of Nava Car Wash on Florence and Hoover, one of two South LA car washes to become unionized in January of 2012.

“What we’ve also learned is that even though many owners run their own businesses, it doesn’t mean they’re responsible owners that understand the law and how they should be running the biz. Many of them, often don’t know minimum wage laws,” Dominguez points out.

Nava’s car wash also accepted the union contract. Owner Luis Nava had been a manager at the car wash for more than 7 years and bought it from the previous owner in November of 2011.

“Everybody has the right to make minim wage,” says Nava. “They work hard. We have to help them and they can help me.”

The workers will now be represented by the Steel Workers Local 675.

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