"Companero, how do they treat you here?"
The stranger addressed Manuel Varela, a worker at Nary's Hand Car Wash on Beverly Boulevard, in Spanish.
"Badly," Varela answered, continuing to pass tickets to motorists as they pulled in.
Curious, Gabriel Chavez crawled out of the car he was vacuuming. Keeping his gaze on the small window that the owner used to peer at his workers, he stepped toward the visitor, out of his boss' sightline.
"Do you know you have rights?" the stranger asked Chavez.
The man's name was Mario Giron. He was a union organizer, promising a route to better pay and working conditions. As he explained, Chavez eyed the window. Twice, he raced back to vacuum cars, then returned.
Before leaving, Giron slipped the workers a card, urging them to attend a meeting.
Both men vividly recalled organizers' stealthy visit to Nary's in Los Angeles last March, the first in an effort by two of the nation's largest unions, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers, to organize Southern California's 18,000 carwasheros, many of them illegal immigrants.
During the next year, at carwash after carwash, the organizers would crouch between rows of cars, whispering plans to right the wrongs in the industry. Sometimes they were evicted by owners or police, sometimes shunned by workers themselves.
"If they fire me," one Pasadena car dryer sneered, "will you pay my salary?"
Organizers, who will formally announce their campaign today, hope to reverse what they see as sweatshop conditions at many of the region's 1,000 hand carwashes.
A Times investigation published Sunday showed that many carwash owners flout state labor laws, paying workers less than half of minimum wage or insisting that employees work as propineros, or for tips only.
Owners say unionization will only raise costs for operators and push up prices for consumers. It could lead to job losses as well, if the industry embraces mechanization.
"The only winners of a union drive would be the people behind the drive," said Randy Cressall, a carwash owner and board member of the Western Carwash Assn., an industry trade group. "Consumers would be hurt by this."
Organizers eventually hope to create a steelworkers union local with a collective bargaining agreement. For now, the strategy is to embolden a skittish workforce and appeal to the consciences of consumers. They hope, with the aid of politicians, priests and, when necessary, pickets, to persuade motorists to use carwashes only if owners have signed pledges to hew to the law.
Labor experts say they are borrowing from successful campaigns by immigrant janitors, drywallers and home healthcare workers in Los Angeles. Despite opposition from some rank-and-file members, union leaders who once rejected illegal immigrants as serious prospects increasingly see them as a way to revive the flagging union movement.
Success is far from assured. The story of the unions' yearlong courtship of Nary's workers is one measure of the challenge.
That first day the organizers came, Varela's insides churned with worry. He was terrified at the thought of losing this job. But he felt his boss owed him -- all of them -- more than the $3 to $4 an hour they typically were paid. He would see what this union meeting was all about.
Chavez balked. His family in Chiapas was counting on the money he sent. Without it, his 5-year-old daughter wouldn't have a school uniform or supplies.
How could this stranger dressed in a T-shirt help him? "Why am I going to get in trouble? Lose my job?" he scoffed to Varela.
Varela knew other co-workers would be just as reluctant to challenge the boss, Patrick Lo. Still, anger simmered among many of Lo's men. Two vacuumers, Chavez and Guadalupe Lima, 46, had asked for a raise in 2006 but said Lo refused, citing sparse business. Meanwhile, Lo and his wife drove three cars, including a pricey Audi Q7. He told workers he owned a jewelry business and showed off what appeared to be a gold watch.
Lima quit in frustration.
Varela didn't want to quit. There was no guarantee he'd find a better job. He began encouraging his co-workers to go to the first union meeting in April. "We are giving away our work," he whispered to them as they dried cars.
Soon, Varela, had 11 of 13 workers on board, even Chavez.
Month after month, at Wednesday-night meetings in the Pico-Union area, Nary's workers sat among dozens of carwasheros who'd straggled in after work from all over Los Angeles. Like the Nary's workers, these men were being paid $40 a day -- or less -- for up to 12 hours of work. They said their bosses threatened and screamed at them.
"The bosses think you are poor, ignorant, meek immigrants," organizer Giron said. "Prove them wrong."
Organizers invoked the example of heroes including Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. But the Nary's men seemed to be swayed most by their peers, particularly a ponytailed worker from Pico Car Wash in Los Angeles.