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Carwash Campaign Highlights Success of Community-Labor Teamwork

by repost Tuesday, Apr. 21, 2009 at 8:06 AM

by James Parks, copied from the AFL-CIO Blog.

One of the best ways for unions to reach out to new groups of workers is by joining with community-based worker centers across the country—and the campaign to gain better working conditions for carwash workers in Los Angeles recently has done just that, according to several union leaders involved in the campaign.

AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt, speaking at a brown bag discussion yesterday at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., said worker centers and unions have a lot in common. They both fight for enforcement of wage and hour laws, oppose misclassification of workers and they fight for immigrant rights. Hiatt says:

We have the experience, the expertise. Worker centers have a strong community base. Bringing the two movements together is good for workers. A few years ago, I couldn’t imagine local or national unions would be working so closely with worker centers.

The CLEAN (Community Labor Environmental Action Network) Carwash Campaign is a cooperative, industry-wide strategy to raise the standard of living of this large, low-wage immigrant population through collective bargaining. The campaign began as a community initiative to address noncompliance with wage-and-hour and health and safety laws and regulations throughout the industry. However, the worker centers and other community groups involved soon realized they needed a contract to ensure that labor standards did not revert to subminimum levels once the media spotlight was turned off and government enforcement agencies moved on to their next targets.

The carwash campaign is a direct result of the AFL-CIO worker center program, which has helped create increasing levels of cooperation between worker centers and local unions across the country. Members of the CLEAN campaign approached the AFL-CIO and asked us, together with a union affiliate, to partner with them. The United Steelworkers stepped up, along with the AFL-CIO and about 25 Los Angeles worker centers.

The campaign has grown to include some 50 community and union groups and has garnered strong community support. In February, Los Angeles city attorney Rocky Delgadillo, the city’s top prosecutor, filed 176 criminal charges against two local carwash owners, four of their facilities and the manager of one of the city’s biggest carwash operations. The charges include conspiracy, witness intimidation, grand theft, brandishing a deadly weapon, failure to pay wages and failure to comply with wage orders of the state’s Industrial Welfare Commission regulating workplace conditions.

AFL-CIO Associate General Counsel Ana Avendaño says the carwash campaign is an example of the concrete goals new partnerships between community-based worker groups and unions can accomplish. She told the audience that on a visit to Los Angeles a few years back, she saw firsthand how closely the workers at the worker center resemble a union. Some 30 workers were huddled together deciding the minimum wage they would demand for working that day.

We are witnessing the rebirth of the labor movement for workers who are not represented or who have been unable to get representation.

Eddie Acosta, AFL-CIO worker center coordinator, pointed out that in Austin, Texas, worker centers and the Electrical Workers have joined together to survey workers about whether workers are paid what they are promised. In June, he says, they will release a report and push for new rules on pay in the construction industry in Texas.

Responding to a question from the audience, Avendaño said the election of President Obama will have a strong impact on campaigns such as the carwash effort.

Having a community organizer in the White House means something, and he is surrounding himself with people of a like mind. I expect to see real changes soon.

As a sign of how much things are changing, panelists said new Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who is from Los Angeles, recently hung a picture in the department’s headquarters of her meeting with the carwash workers.

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