haha, oh blogging. i came across this post in my “drafts” inbox and figured: eh, why not.
i wrote an article for the student publication on campus. here’s the rough draft of it; i don’t remember how the final edits looked.
Gosh, gas prices are going up. Cue obligatory conversation filler.
No more need to talk about the weather; after all, this is southern California. Chances are, though, you’ve been caught straining your neck at every gas station that you pass, hoping that the next one is a few pennies cheaper than the last. Of course there are alternative methods to travel: I finally got that light for my bike so I can ride in the evening; and you can always take the Metro to Dodgers games. But I digress.
When it comes down to it, the greater Los Angeles area is known for its cars, both in reliance to traverse the sprawling metropolis as well as in the obsession with using our vehicles as an extension of our personalities. If you’ve turned away from this article thinking that it only applies to the gas guzzling, consumerist Land Rover owners out there, take the keys out of that pretentious Prius or the hipster hatchback and stick with me for a little longer. Ok, maybe it’s only me stuck on labels…
In any case, the upkeep of our valuable vehicles takes more than just filling up the tank from time to time. Oil changes and tune-ups get penciled into weekend errand runs, yes, but in the desert we can’t count on a ground-clearing thunderstorm to provide the free carwash. But a carwash and detail for $10? That I can swing. Rather, I could.
Last summer and through the fall, I joined an organization of faith leaders who were committed to matters of social justice…and not the feel-good catch phrase type of social justice. On my first day on the job, my boss joined with other faith leaders and community members and participated in an act of civil disobedience. We sang and chanted and encouraged those who sat in silence that afternoon, and as the police took each person away in handcuffs, we cheered for their act of solidarity and prophetic witness (we sang “This Little Light Of Mine” for my boss). That was Day One.
Throughout that summer and fall, I learned about a number of other campaigns that emerged from the cries of those suffering economic injustices. In Long Beach, I met with port truck drivers who were working for better wages and work conditions. Near LAX I met with women who were not given a chance to file grievances for sustaining injuries from 10+ hour days working at wages below minimum wage. In Pasadena and Eagle Rock, I met with grocery store workers who were harassed by employers in efforts to stifle their collective bargaining processes.
I will never forget my meetings with the carwasheros.
I have had the privilege of meeting several employees from a number of car wash and detail shops in the Santa Monica area. For the amount of emphasis we place on cars here in LA, it seems that owning these stores are a great source of entrepreneurship and small business. In fact, it is: type in “Los Angeles car wash” and the red dots come flying faster than a middle school game of dodgeball. In some of these places, however, the workers—or carwasheros—experience substandard work conditions and violations of basic labor laws.
I listened to these carwasheros, mostly men but also a few women, share stories of working 10+ hour days and taking home $30-$40, or only tips. They work these hours without breaks and without shade. Some of these carwasheros shared their respective stories while holding onto canes or holding strained wrists, having sustained permanent disabilities because the car wash owners would not provide the proper equipment. Basic equipment — such as gloves and boots for working with the chemicals used in cleaning hundreds of cars a day — was shared among employees. At the height of their struggles was the suppression of their voice. These carwasheros spoke of flippant dismissals and firings, the employers citing that they only offered to let the workers earn tips and therefore unnecessary to provide safe work conditions. Fed up with the lack of dignity and respect, these carwasheros have joined local coalitions in fighting to be heard.
Nowadays you’ll see me craning my neck when I pass by gas stations looking for a good deal, but you’ll also see me craning my neck when I pass a car wash shop. How does it cost only $10 when six men are working on my car at one time? Do they have gloves? Is there shade for the workers during long hour stints in the sun?
This may seem like call to join a picket line or a rally alongside the carwasheros. Well, maybe. I thought of wrapping up with a challenge to open our eyes to the often-overlooked injustices that permeate our communities, something about looking at our everyday luxuries with fresh eyes. But if you’ve made it this far in reading, you’ve done just that. You can go back to life as usual, but perhaps with a bit more knowledge than before. Is that enough?
Hopefully this is a chance to rethink our spending habits and what we consider a ‘great deal.’ Hopefully this is a chance to talk to your church leaders about partnering with local campaigns geared toward supporting those who are marginalized by socioeconomic inequalities. Maybe you are that church leader and are in a place to think creatively on how your congregation can get involved with local issues. And for some of you, this may be the encouragement to stand beside workers and nonprofit organizations in the struggle for economic justice.
If nothing else, I hope the fight of the carwasheros is a call to prayer for our brothers and sisters in greater Los Angeles and to humbly see their livelihoods as inextricably linked to our own.