Car Wash Heroes


“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

– Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

My earliest memory of a picket line was back in 2003. I was 13. My mom, a registered nurse working for a health insurance company, decided to stock up on food before the grocery workers were to strike.

“I refuse to cross a picket line”, she told me as we drove by the local Von’s a few days later.

In 2010, I went to the picket line of a car wash in Northridge as a reporter. Ex-car washers, labor activists, union members, and local students marched side by side with picket signs in their hands under the blazing hot valley heat as a part of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign. As I got a few quotes and snapped pictures, it struck me that none of the workers at this car wash were picketing.

I asked one of the picketers why the workers were not protesting alongside with them, seeing that it was their jobs that were being recognized. I was told that if the workers themselves were to join the picket line, they would be fired. At this point in time, Los Angeles carwashes were not unionized and workers were paid less than minimum wage, mostly making money from their tips. There were also no safety regulations in place for the workers and clearly they were not given any benefits by their employer.

It broke my heart to hear this. How could anyone think that this was ok?

As cars drove into the driveway of the carwash and crossed the picket line, I couldn’t help but chant with the picketers. And as I drove by the carwash on my way out, I honked my horn as loud as I could to show my solidarity. Solidarity was the only chance these workers had at a good job and fair wage, because they could not have a voice and could not speak out for themselves.

A week ago, I was speaking with Dave Campbell, a union officer at USW 675 about their signatories to include in the 2012 edition of LA Labor 411. As I was about to hang up the phone, he told me that USW 675 recently signed contracts with car washes in the Los Angeles area and asked if I would want to include that in LA Labor 411.

A huge smile spread across my face. I had almost forgotten about that hot summer day picketing in Northridge over a year ago. “Of course, we would love to include them in the directory,” I gushed. As I hung up the phone, I thought to myself They did it! They finally have a voice.

As project manager of LA Labor 411, I know how many union contracts have not been renewed in the past few years; but, what this shows us is that as one door closes, if we all work together hard enough, another one opens.

Shelly Lurie
Project Manager, LA Labor 411

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