Car Wash Workers Campaign
After receiving multiple complaints from car wash workers throughout the city, Arise Chicago’s Worker Center noticed a disturbing trend of deplorable working conditions, including widespread wage theft and health and safety hazards, at Chicago’s hand car washes. We organized campaigns for individual workers at several car washes, but soon realized that these problems were common practice across the industry. After learning of the Clean Car Wash Campaign in Los Angeles, Arise Chicago decided to take action. We reached out to the United Steel Workers and received their commitment to help workers organize for justice in the industry, and solicited the expertise of the University of Illinois Labor Education Program to survey workers and produce an investigative report of the industry’s labor practices. Arise Chicago has organized worker leaders from multiple car washes throughout Chicago to form an Organizing Committee.
Dirty Working Conditions
Arise organizers visited over 80 local car washes in the city of Chicago to speak with workers and hear their stories. Workers at several locations reported working for tips exclusively, with no hourly wage; workers at one business reported paying a daily fee of $12 to management for the “privilege” of working! Health and safety conditions were also deplorable. Many workers reported working with noxious and abrasive chemicals with no protective equipment; one worker told of losing a thumb to dangerous machinery. When University of Illinois researchers surveyed three-quarters of all Chicago hand car washes and nearly one-third of all hand car wash workers to produce a landmark report, Clean Cars, Dirty Work, their findings were similar:
- 99% of workers are men of color, primarily immigrants
- On average, $4,413 is stolen per worker per year—roughly 1/3 of their annual wages
- 76% of workers earn below the state minimum wage, even when their tips are included
- 98.2% are not paid the legal overtime rate
- 97.3% of workers earn below the federal poverty level
- 80% of workers are not provided with personal protective equipment for the harmful chemicals they work with nor information about their occupational health hazards
- 63.7% do not have access to clean free drinking water and nearly 60% have no access to sheltered meal break areas separate from their hazardous working environments
Car wash workers have joined together to improve their working conditions and to defend their rights to free expression and association on the job. The workers have received workers’ rights trainings, including an OSHA-approved health and safety workshop. As Committee members, they have pledged their support to one another and are conducting delegations to employers, educating elected officials and gaining support form Chicago’s diverse religious communities. Before the campaign was formally launched, the Committee recovered close to $50,000 in stolen wages. The Committee’s organizing has attracted national media attention, gaining coverage in The New York Times, in addition to several local media outlets.
Contact Car Wash Organizer Micah Uetricht at micah[at]arisechicago[dot]org | 773-780-1920 to support our campaign for dignity and justice in one of Chicago’s most exploitative industries.
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