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.




  • Davistrain

    What is ironic is that some of the people who post on this board would like to see carwashes go out of business because, in their ideal world, there wouldn’t be any privately owned cars left to wash.

  • Erikmar

    Is it not possible to have some goals for the long term and others for the short term? While, ideally, one moves towards the long term goals by  linearly accumulating short term ones, that’s not always possible. I think you’ve found an example of this.

  • Erik Griswold

    I do wonder why this is a story on Streetsblog.  It is great that they unionized, but will the unionization of other auto-servicing industries be the next story?

    If we are having a story about carwashes, can we find out how much natural resources they use and how much crap they dump into the the sewers in keeping car-addicts’ egos sufficiently stoked?

  • sahra

     Erik, it was an update to a story I had done early in the year on the human cost of carwashes (see the link embedded at the beginning of the story). Workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals and wear no protections, work long hours, are threatened and mistreated, and have their wages stolen. That is easy to document. Cataloging environmental impact is more challenging. Assuming that carwashes are set up to send wastewater through the sanitation system, chemicals in the water can largely be treated. Which means that it might be better for you to wash your car than just let it accumulate pollution and crap that gets washed directly into storm drains if you take it out in the rain. And you probably shouldn’t wash your car at home or take it to a charity carwash because they set up shop at some parking lot or gas station lot and their wastewater likely goes directly into the storm drain to the ocean/river untreated.

  • Erik Griswold

    Thanks for the explanation Sahra!

  • Jake Wegmann

    I’m going to make a modest prediction: even if we continue to take major steps towards better transit, more walking and safer biking (and I sure hope we will!), we’ll have car washes for decades to come. Unless I am very much mistaken, even Copenhagen and Amsterdam — the ultimate multimodal utopias — have carwashes. And many people, such as my wife and I, who bike and walk and take transit most of the time, will continue to own cars, and will continue to need to get them washed every now and then. Hopefully there will be fewer cars getting used less often, and therefore fewer carwashes, but there will still be carwashes.

    Thus, for the foreseeable future, the treatment of workers at carwashes will be of concern to those of us who care about income inequality and social justice.

    One more minor point: the mistreatment of workers at automobile servicing businesses is one more way in which cars use doesn’t pay for itself — to put it in economic terms, the externalities of car use are being dumped on society, and in this case a vulnerable population of workers. So multimodalist progressives such as ourselves should be all over carwash unionization, for all sorts of different reasons.

    Thanks for this cool piece, Sahra.

  • M_Young

    Just about all these guys are here illegally. They and their families cost the state a fortune. No way even a ‘unionized’ carwashero makes enough in taxes to pay for his average 3 kids in school.

    Wash your own car, or go to a community fundraising carwash.

  • Raphael

    You’re damn lucky there’s an internet, where any ignorant moron can post anonymously about things they have no clue about. Had you used names, you’d be guilty of libel. Since you didn’t, you’re just an asshole.


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