What a Difference a Year (and a Union) Makes: An Update on the Unionization of Carwasheros

Ms. Kim, center, owner of Vermont Carwash, is commended for her commitment to making the workplace better for carwasheros. (photo: Clean Carwash Campaign)

Earlier this year, workers at three Los Angeles carwashes were successful in unionizing.

When I interviewed some of the workers from Vermont Car Wash at the time, they were pleased with the turn of events, but skeptical. Their success had been two years in the making and it had been stressful on them and their families. Many feared speaking out would both cost them their jobs and make it hard for them to work elsewhere, given that many of the carwash owners in the area knew each other.

I was skeptical, too.

Workers had told me stories about being paid for only half of a 10-hour shift or five of the six days they worked in a given week. They spoke of having tips stolen, being humiliated by management in front of customers, and getting harassed on their breaks. I was not inclined to believe that a supervisor that would try to intimidate workers by showing them the machete, combat knife, and .38 caliber bullets that they kept within reach at the office, “just in case,” would respect an agreement to treat workers well and give them adequate pay.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

At least, about Vermont Carwash.

The owner, Mi Sook Kim, has not only complied with the demands of the union, she has also dedicated time to promoting unionization at other carwashes, citing the benefits it has brought to her establishment.

There are still minor issues between workers and management, Neidi Dominguez of the Clean Carwash Campaign told me, but they revolve around things like scheduling and are easily resolved. In all other areas, she said, Kim has worked very hard to be compliant.

In fact, relations had improved to such a degree that management and the workers broke bread (and Korean BBQ) together in a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at which State Senator Curren Price presented Kim with a certificate of recognition for her service to the community. As part of the celebration, Kim spoke about her own struggles as an immigrant business owner and workers spoke about how being part of the union had improved their lives and given them access to medical care, something which proved vital for carwashero Oscar, who needed a skin tumor removed.

Unionization has not been as successful at other sites, Dominguez told me. Keeping other owners compliant has been a bit of a struggle. But having Kim on board to support the cause among other owners — particularly within the Korean community — is important to helping them see the benefits of respecting the rights of workers.

“I am very happy that the Union and I joined hands, and I am excited for a bright future,” Kim said in a statement. “I give thanks to all the community supporters, my employees and their families for believing that together we could make this business prosper.”

Vermont Carwash is located at 6219 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles CA, 90044.