Scrubbing Out Car Wash Industry Dirt

Rodolfo Perez, Contributor

After nearly four years of hard work with sleepless nights, papers and reading assignments, I find myself months away from graduation. But, I have to say, one of my greatest satisfactions as a student didn’t come from the classroom. It occurred recently during my work with a labor justice campaign in Los Angeles. I got involved with the Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) Carwash Campaign, which has been fighting for the rights of car wash workers.

In the process of helping with the campaign’s community outreach efforts, I met Juan Torres, a car wash worker from Los Angeles. Despite being only 28 years old, Juan has worked in the car wash industry for 11 years.

The working conditions of the car wash industry are dangerous, and often times workers find themselves unprotected by their employers. One Sunday afternoon, Juan was washing a car when he slipped and the vehicle he was washing ran over his left leg. He was taken to a nearby hospital to treat his broken leg, but he was never the same. He is in constant pain and now must use a cane.

“The pain was so intense that I [took] seven Advil to numb it. I couldn’t tell them at work that I was hurting because they could fire me,” said Juan. Along with not having medical insurance, he suffered many other forms of abuse as a car wash worker. For example, he never received a wage increase in the 11 years he worked there.

According to the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, car wash workers often work up to 10 hours a day, making approximately $3 or $4 per hour without any overtime compensation. Juan joined CLEAN to organize against these labor injustices. He heard about the CLEAN campaign the way many others do: from fellow car wash workers.

Juan still has not received proper compensation for his injury, and he is very active in the CLEAN car wash campaign. Through pickets, he helps inform the public about the injustices occurring in the car wash industry. More importantly, he reaches out to other car wash workers and informs them of their rights. “I don’t want others to go through what I went through, I want show them there are people out there that care. That they are not alone,” said Juan.

Though he has been through much, Juan’s fighting spirit keeps him going and has made him a role model for me and for others in the campaign. I challenge all UCLA students to take their education outside the university walls to build better communities. I will graduate with a much deeper understanding of the suffering that occurs outside of UCLA because I worked with CLEAN and because I met Juan. I can only hope other students at UCLA meet the Juans of their community and learn from them.

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