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Union forges a new alliance with carwash workers

Organizing low-wage employees reflects movement's future, AFL-CIO chief says

February 22, 2012|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, center announces contracts at two carwashes.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, center announces contracts at two carwashes. (Gary Friedman/Los Angeles…)

Union membership is on the wane, but not at the Vermont Carwash and Nava's Carwash in South Los Angeles.

The two businesses have agreed to collective bargaining agreements with their workers, who are members of the United Steelworkers union. Wages at the firms will be $8.16 an hour, organizers said, an increase of about 2%.

There are now believed to be three union carwashes in the country, with Santa Monica's Bonus Carwash becoming the first last year. But if union leaders are able to stem — let alone reverse — years of declining membership, it will take the allegiance of these kinds of low-wage workers.

"This is the future of the labor movement," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, gesturing to the parking lot full of workers waving signs in English and Spanish, before he went on stage.

Throughout the afternoon, chants of "We did it," in Spanish competed against whirring sounds from the carwash. Trumka stood on stage with religious leaders and carwash workers who spoke no English, rousing the crowd.

"This should be the headline: Carwash workers make history in L.A., and the labor movement and Los Angeles community stand shoulder to shoulder with them," he said.

A decade ago, this kind of alliance between immigrant workers and unions might have been touted with far less enthusiasm. Unions have long had a queasy relationship with immigrants, accusing them of taking their jobs and accepting low wages that drive down the cost of labor. But as unions lose traction in the government sector, labor is recognizing that it needs to embrace a different kind of worker.

"Rich Trumka's visit to California signals a big change in the leadership of the American labor movement with regards to attitudes toward immigrant labor," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. "It is in the strategic interests of unions to align with the immigrant workforce."

Organizing these workers is no easy task, especially as some are undocumented and want to avoid controversy. Day laborers, for example, do not share a common workplace, and movement between employers is common. Taxi drivers work in their own space and rarely interact. And in an economy in which unemployment is still high, workers are hesitant to join any group that might jeopardize their employment status.

That's why it makes more sense to organize this type of worker in an association, rather than a nontraditional union, said Richard Hurd, a professor at Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations School. Organizing a traditional union can take years because groups have to file petitions for election and companies can challenge the process every step of the way.

Day laborers, taxi drivers and freelance workers are among the groups that have formed nontraditional alliances. Although they can't legally bargain on behalf of workers, they can advocate for the same benefits that unions would.

"We consider ourselves part of the labor movement without being unionized," said Omar Angel Perez, executive director of the Workplace Project, which is part of the day laborers' network.

The AFL-CIO is trying to align itself with these groups, as reflected by Trumka's visit to the carwash workers. On Wednesday, he will head to Sacramento to support a bill giving rights to domestic workers, another group whose members don't belong to a traditional union.

"More and more, we have all come to see that work connects us all," Trumka said in a speech to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network announced a partnership with the AFL-CIO in 2006, and in October, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance became the first group in decades to join the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO helps loose alliances of workers gain political strength through its network, but it benefits from the partnership too, said Eric Rodriguez, executive director of the Latino Union of Chicago, a nonprofit group that trains immigrant workers to organize.

Unions are learning how to approach workers on street corners, recruit in Spanish and find workers who might initially be fearful of joining a labor group.

The workers' alliances might have to take a few pages from the unions too, especially in regard to fundraising. Unions have long been successful at raising money in part because many unions can require members to pay dues, regardless of whether they want to. Without that power, an alliance's source of funds is much less certain.

The Latino Union has tried to raise money by starting a coffee co-op that employs workers and makes money for the group. Though that endeavor may be a work in progress, Rodriguez says that support from traditional unions is helping his group move forward.

"Before, in Chicago, they saw us as competition," he said. "They thought we were keeping rates down. But when they came to the street corners, they realized what we were going through."

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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