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The Next Battleground for Organized Labor? The Car Wash

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Car wash owners in Los Angeles are facing major headaches over a push by labor to unionize their workplaces -- and subsequent media coverage that’s drawing attention to how heavily populated by illegal immigrants those workplaces are.

The United Steelworkers-led effort is the latest by one of the big old unions to pad declining membership rolls by expanding to new industries. The United Auto Workers, for example, have been making some inroads in higher education and gaming.

As the Times points out, though, L.A.'s 10,000 or so car wash workers won't be easy to organize. It would take a huge number of union drives -- car washes aren't typically operated as large chains -- and illegal immigrants understandably tend to adopt a don’t-rock-the-boat approach at work.

Still, organizers of the two-year-old Clean Carwash Campaign, which has yet to convert a car wash to a union shop, hope their public advocacy will at least help persuade owners to improve working conditions. They have notched one legal victory that’s put the fear in proprietors, having nudged the city to prosecute the car-wash-owning Pirian brothers, who got a year in jail and were ordered to repay $1.24 million to underpaid workers. With an estimated two-thirds of L.A. car washes violating workplace laws, we'd imagine there are a lot of nervous owners out there.

And a lot of reasons to be nervous. Employing illegal immigrants is not a popular position to be in these days, and now that the gato is out of the bag, car washes in L.A. and beyond could be subject to crackdowns by legislators looking to score political points on the immigration issue. Customers might stay home due to the negative attention. And for any owners who go along with the union drive, not only will they need to pass along higher prices to customers, but they’ll have to contend with conservatives like this Huffington Post commenter who avoid supporting union workers whenever possible.

Hosed if you do, hosed if you don’t, it seems.
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.