Workin' at the car wash

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Worker advocates with La Raza Centro Legal and the San Francisco Day Labor Program are partnering with city officials for a creative approach to addressing the pervasive issue of wage theft: A worker-owned car wash.

On Aug. 17, attorneys from La Raza joined with City Attorney Dennis Herrera to announce that a lawsuit had been filed against the owners of Tower Car Wash for longstanding labor law violations that resulted in workers earning less than minimum wage. The complaint, filed jointly with the city and La Raza, seeks to recover up to $3 million in compensation, penalties, and interest for the cheated workers.

The Tower Car Wash lawsuit, along with other high-profile complaints alleging wage theft that the city has filed against the owners of Dick Lee Pastry and Danny Ho, who allegedly cheated day laborers out of the money they were owed, would never have come to fruition if low-wage workers hadn't come forward. Individuals like Tower Car Wash employee Rosa Ochoa, who's involved with La Raza's Colectiva de Mujeres, have publicly challenged their employers for labor violations, a tough stand in a state with exceptionally high unemployment in the midst of a recession.

"What we feel like is really important about this lawsuit is that for us, it's about worker empowerment," says Workers' Rights Coordinating Attorney Kate Hegé of La Raza. "It wouldn't be possible without these workers being able to come forward."

The idea for a worker-owned car wash emerged out of a desire to advance the goal of worker empowerment, Hegé notes. With help from Sup. David Campos, interim Mayor Ed Lee, and pro bono assistance from the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, La Raza and the San Francisco Day Labor Program hope to establish a regular car wash on weekdays in the city-owned lot on Bayshore and Alemany boulevards, the location of the Alemany Farmer's Market and the Alemany Flea Market on Saturdays and Sundays.

"We've been working with the city for the past several months to start a green, worker-owned car wash cooperative where workers of the San Francisco Day Labor Program would not only administer it, but work and gain benefits," Renee Saucedo, Community Empowerment Coordinator at La Raza, told the Guardian. "The main thing about this day labor car wash is that it's going to be run by the workers themselves."

The project comes on the heels of a broader local effort to improve protections for low-wage workers. Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors approved the Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance, crafted in partnership with the Progressive Workers Alliance to strengthen the the city's Office of Labor Standards & Enforcement.

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