Los Angelenos may be the most auto-obsessed people on the planet (see Carmaggedon), but most of the time we turn a blind eye toward the people who actually clean our cars—and their routinely terrible working conditions.

The 10,000 car wash workers working at more than 500 car washes in Los Angeles are routinely excluded from the labor protections most Angelenos enjoy. Car wash workers, or carwasheros, are paid less than minimum wage-- in some cases they earn only tips instead of real wages. They’re often expected to handle toxic chemicals without wearing masks and gloves. They usually don’t get the work breaks that the In-N-Out employees across the street take for granted.
And when they raise their voices against these substandard conditions, they’re often subjected to harassment and retaliation by management. Sometimes their work hours are cut or they’re fired to intimidate the remaining car wash staff.
But today, about 30 car wash workers announced a union contract with Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica. The CLEAN Carwash campaign, which helped organize the workers and coordinate the contract, says that the terms of the contract aren’t extravagant: car wash owners are simply agreeing to abide by state labor law regarding working conditions, like work breaks and when workers can clock in. It also provides a procedure for hearing workers' grievances. And it requires any future owners to abide by the contract, so the improved working conditions will remain even if the car wash changes ownership.
“It was a two-year struggle,” said Eduardo Tapia, a longtime employee of Bonus Car Wash. “We have 10 more minutes of break. We have our water to drink. If they say show up at work at 10:30, I start work at 10:30.”
The ACLU of Southern California has supported the CLEAN Carwash campaign’s efforts since its inception in 2008. We’ve helped organize the car wash workers, aided the contract negotiation process, and rallied our full membership for support.
This small union gives Los Angeles the distinction of being home to the first unionized car wash in the country. But it won’t be the last.