A worker at Bonus Car Wash wipes down an SUV on Tuesday. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

OCEAN PARK — Employees and management of Bonus Car Wash on Lincoln Boulevard signed an agreement Tuesday that made Santa Monica the home to the only unionized car wash in the country, according to activists.

Workers will now be part of the United Steelworkers union, which will protect their rights to a wage increase, health and safety protections, grievance and arbitration procedures and protections for workers if the carwash gets sold, said Chloe Osmer, acting director of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, which supported the unionization movement.

“Today was really exciting for the workers at Bonus, but also for car wash workers from all over the city,” Osmer said.

The contract guarantees what seem like basic protections, but the carwash industry has long been one that exploited its workers, paying them less than minimum wage and denying them basic rights, Osmer said.

“Through Los Angeles, car washes have been operating under the radar screen of regulators for years,” Osmer said. “That started to change as organization efforts brought more attention to the industry.”

Efforts to organize began in the Marina Car Wash, owned by the same company, in Marina del Rey in 2008. That business closed down, but the desire to unionize had spread to its sister car wash in Santa Monica.

Workers received support from the CLEAN Carwash Campaign and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, as well as local organizations like the Church in Ocean Park.

The Rev. Janet Gollery McKeithen and her congregation led candlelight vigils and protests to help the “carwasheros” win rights to a fair wage and safe working conditions.

“From our perspective, it’s a real breakthrough for low-wage workers,” said Glen Arnodo, staff director with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO. “There’s a real dark side to that industry. They’re the most exploited workers in Los Angeles County.”

Organizers still have their work cut out for them to inform the 30 employees of Bonus what it means to be a union.

Yesenia Sanchez, a cashier at Bonus, came to work after the signing.

“I don’t really even know what it means,” Sanchez said. “I don’t know if they know what it means. I just got here, and saw everyone here. They said we’re going to become a union.”

City Council members Kevin McKeown and Terry O’Day were present for the announcement.

“I’m very proud that the first union car wash in the country is right here in Santa Monica,” McKeown wrote in an e-mail. “Fair wages and safe working conditions are important to Santa Monicans, who can now get a clean car with a clean conscience.”

McKeown’s Toyota, with license plate STA MNCA, was the first car cleaned by the newly-unionized car wash.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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