Victory for the Carwasheros

Amid all the bad news that’s plagued organized labor—and, alas, there’s been plenty of it (stagnant membership rolls, internecine battles, outsourcing of jobs, loss of public respect, Republican roadblocks, Democratic betrayals)—Fthere was some recent good news worth mentioning.

On August 17, a group of Los Angeles carwasheros (the term for Southern California’s 18,000 largely immigrant car wash employees) won a landmark case against four carwash facilities—Vermont Hand Wash, Five Star Car Wash, Celebrity Car Wash, and Hollywood Car Wash—owned and operated by the notorious Pirian brothers, Nissan and Benny.

It should be noted parenthetically (and I say this as a former dishwasher) that, as bad as carwasheros have it, kitchen workers have it as bad or worse.  Besides being quarantined from the air-conditioning and piped-in music, the kitchen staff receives no extra money. Unlike their carwashero brethren who get the occasional tip thrown their way, in the restaurant milieu, only the waitstaff and busboys share in the gratuities.  Que lastima.

The Pirian case began more than two years ago, largely through the efforts of the United Steel Workers (USW), the union that was attempting to organize the workers.  Nissan and Benny were formally charged with grand theft, obstruction of justice, and numerous labor and safety violations, and co-defendant Manuel Reyes, manager of Vermont Hand Wash, was charged with brandishing a weapon, witness intimidation, and sexual battery.

The Pirians’ violations were staggering.  They stole money outright from their employees, refusing to pay wages that were due them, and they stole it indirectly by forcing them to work off-the-clock; they ignored safety complaints, lied to investigators, fired workers who supported the USW, and threatened to fire anyone who sought union membership or contacted the labor board.  These weren’t simply greedy bosses; these were criminals.

As a general rule, it’s tough to get the government (any government—city, state or federal) to come down hard on companies admitting to or being found guilty of labor violations.  In the grand scheme of things, labor infractions—especially those involving Latino immigrants—simply don’t count for much, which is one reason they’re so widespread.

Moreover, because the cards are so heavily stacked in favor of commercial interests, businesses found guilty are typically given a slap on the wrist and held to a promise to behave properly in the future.

There have been some exceptions.  Among the most notable was the Wal-Mart fiasco in 2008, where, in response to 63 class action lawsuits, the giant, defiantly anti-union retailer admitted to having underpaid its employees (by forcing them to work off-the-clock), and agreed to pay a whopping $640 million in back wages.

It’s puzzling why the AFL-CIO and Change To Win haven’t made that Wal-Mart caper the centerpiece of their organizing drives….or, indeed, had it emblazoned on their letterheads.  Wal-Mart gets caught stealing $640 million from its employees??!  Organized labor should be able fly to moon on the gas created by a scandal of that magnitude.

Back to the Pirian brothers.  In cases like these, the grieving employees hope (1) that the evidence proves sufficient to convince the bureaucrats to act upon it, and (2) that after establishing the employer’s guilt, the authorities are willing to do the right thing and mete out meaningful and commensurate punishment.  The latter doesn’t always happen.

Which is what made the Pirian verdict so gratifying.  In addition to being fined and forced to make restitution for back wages, the two brothers were sentenced to one year in county jail and placed on four years probation.  The Reyes case is still pending.

With jail sentences so rare, this was a stunning denouement, one that will doubtless send shivers up the spine of every carwash owner in LA.  Responding to the verdict, Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, said, “Today, carwash owners are on notice that this is a new day in Los Angeles.  Abuse of workers will no longer go unchecked.”

As to the larger picture, it needs to be emphasized, particularly on Labor Day, that if you belong to a union, you never have to worry about what happened to the carwasheros or Wal-Mart employees happening to you.  Unions have their share of faults, but allowing members not to receive wages they’re entitled to ain’t one of them.

As for Wal-Mart’s hourly workforce’s stubborn refusal to join a union—even after learning that their bosses stole money right out of their pockets, and reluctantly gave it back only after being forced to—well, that’s a bigger mystery than Stonehenge.  It’s a mystery for the ages.  It defies explanation.

In the name of all that is holy, how dense do you have to be not to realize you need a union for protection?  If stealing $640 million from the employees’ paychecks won’t convince you that labor-management relations are fundamentally adversarial, what will?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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