Vigil/Protest for a CLEAN Carwash

EDIT: The address is 1666 North Vermont, not 1666 Sunset.

If you’re free on Thursday afternoon from 4 to 5:30 and happen to be in Los Angeles, head on over to the Vermont Handwash at 1666 North Vermont for an interfaith protest against employee abuse in the L.A. and Orange County carwash industry, courtesy of PJA, the UCLA Labor Center, CHIRLA, CLUE, and the CLEAN Carwash Campaign.

From CLEAN’s website:

Workers Charge LA Carwashes with Dangerous Health and Safety Violations

Health and Safety Experts Warn of Serious Risks of Heat Illness and Toxics Exposure

Los Angeles–Carwash workers who are part of the Carwash Workers Organizing Committee of the United Steelworkers (CWOC-USW) filed complaints today with the California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and Health alleging serious health and safety violations at two Los Angeles carwashes owned by members of the Pirian family. The Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network (CLEAN), a coalition of community, labor, and faith-based organizations, called for a boycott of six Pirian family-owned carwashes in April because of a history of serious employment, health and safety, and environmental law violations at some Pirian family-owned carwashes.

“The complaints filed today against Vermont Hand Wash and Hollywood Car Wash reveal shocking violations of our state’s health and safety regulations,” said Eden Flynn, a health and safety expert who heads the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (SoCal COSH). “Among other serious violations, management has not provided shade and rest breaks for all workers, despite record high temperatures in Los Angeles. These workers are subject to the same risks of heat illness as farm workers in the Central Valley,” said Flynn.

Bosbely Reyna, one of the workers who filed the complaint against Vermont Hand Wash, said “We work in the hot sun drying cars, and when it’s busy we have to go without any break to drink water or cool off in the shade. But we’ve heard about the farm workers who died, we know we have the right to protect ourselves at work, and we know what the boss is doing is illegal.”

Workers in the carwash industry are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals in car cleaning products that are known by the state to cause cancer. Prolonged exposure to some of the chemicals found in LA carwashes can cause liver, kidney and heart, and central nervous system damage.

“None of the carwash workers we spoke to had received any training whatsoever on the handling of these highly toxic chemicals,” said Flynn, “and many are forced to work without protective equipment such as gloves or masks.”

The complaint also describes faulty equipment that causes chemical spills, such as a leaking hose that transports acid for wheel cleaning. When workers have used the hose to clean wheels, acid leaked onto their skin.

“When the acid touches your skin, it burns and makes your hands peel and crack. We never received any training on what the chemicals are or how to use them, so sometimes the workers mix up window cleaner with the acid and when they spray it onto the windshields it gets in their eyes. Some of the guys have problems seeing for months after that,” said Reyna.

Carwash workers described bathrooms shared by more than 30 people with no soap or toilet paper, and toilets clogged for as long as a week at a time.

The complaint also details broken machinery at Hollywood Car Wash that has injured workers, such as a dryer that workers must stick their arms into to stop manually. Due to the dryer’s excessive heat and constant spinning, at least one employee has been burned while attempting to retrieve a towel from the dryer.

The CLEAN Carwash Campaign welcomed yesterday’s announcement that the Labor Commissioner’s office had conducted sweeps of dozens of Southern California carwashes. “CLEAN welcomes the state’s efforts to clean up the carwash industry,” said Lilia Garcia, a leader of the CLEAN coalition and the head of the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund. “The violations uncovered in the sweeps confirm that this is a dirty industry and violations by carwash owners are rampant. Just one sweep exposed carwash owners who were violating child labor law, failing to pay minimum wage, and failing to insure for workers’ compensation.”

More than half of the L.A. and Orange County carwashes inspected in the sweeps were cited for violations of employment laws. “We look forward to working with Labor Commissioner Angela Bradstreet to ensure consistent and aggressive enforcement of employment laws in the carwash industry. We know that real enforcement of our laws, combined with workers organizing for their rights, is the only way to create sustainable compliance with the law by owners,” said Garcia.

See you there!

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

Israel and Immigration

Image description: a girl between 8 and 10 years old holds a rose and an Israeli flag. She’s wearing a backpack and looking at the camera without smiling. A boy is visible behind her. Photo credit: Brian Hendler.

This picture was featured on last week’s photo roundup on JTA. The girl is a Georgian refugee whose family has chosen to immigrate to Israel to escape the fighting. The image certainly says a lot about the girl’s current state, but I think it says a lot about Israel, too.

A couple of disclaimers:

1. Obviously I’m not a mind-reader, so don’t interpret this as my attempt to pick this particular girl’s brain. My reading of the photo is on a purely symbolic level.

2. As a Diaspora Jew, I know that I don’t have insider knowledge of life in contemporary Israel (although many native-born Israelis seem to feel they have insider knowledge of life in the contemporary Diaspora).

What’s interesting about the photo is that the girl has apparently been given a flower and an Israeli flag upon her arrival at Ben Gurion. Only the top of the flag is visible, but I recognize it as the same type I was given at the Birthright Mega-Event a few years ago. For those of you not familiar with what goes on during a Birthright trip, the Mega-Event is the culmination of a tour around the country for Jews ages 18-26. The evening is crammed with the gaudiest spectacles you can imagine – laser shows, dance troupes, pop stars, visiting heads of state, a post-show rave – and little plastic Israeli flags are made available to the thousands of audience members. The official purpose of the flags, I suppose, is to give Birthrighters a memento of their trip. The real purpose becomes clear, though, whenever Israel is mentioned during the show. The stands appear to quiver as everyone cheers and waves their flag. Anyone not waving one can’t help but feel almost seditious.

The symbolism of a national flag can’t be underestimated. It’s what you hold up to support your government’s actions, to demonstrate solidarity with the other inhabitants of your country (the ones that look and sound like you, at least), to show support for your country when it’s challenged or threatened by another country, or to display your love of the ideals of your country. You wave it at national celebrations or in times of collective crisis. You lower it when in mourning for someone who supported it. You use it to contrast your country with others, to show what you are by highlighting what you’re not.

The flag doesn’t have to be about that, of course, as I’ve discussed before. But those are the most commonly accepted connotations. It’s a symbol of pride in and loyalty to a particular nation – and a way of establishing a very clear-cut identity.

So this new Israeli has just arrived from a war-torn region. She’s lost her home, most of her belongings, and quite possibly close friends and family members. She looks tired and distracted. She’s holding the flag she’s been given, but she’s not smiling.

What are a Jew’s motives for moving to Israel? What are Israel’s motives for encouraging refugees to immigrate?

The easiest answers are the cynical ones. Why not move to Israel when your home has been destroyed? Why not exploit a humanitarian crisis to recruit more citizens, when part of your government’s strategy is to entrench itself in someone else’s territory through illegal settlements and state-sanctioned violence? When your national identity is based, in part, on being a safe haven for a persecuted people – which ties a little too nicely into justifying the persecution of the people who put down roots during the 2,000 years you were gone?

And there’s truth in those answers. But there’s truth in the stickier answers, too. A few Georgians were quoted as saying that they’d already been considering moving to Israel; the war was just the catalyst. It’s a joke to claim that anti-Semitism abruptly vanished in the latter half of the 20th century. Recently I was helping a student brainstorm essay ideas, and she mentioned her youth group’s trip to Poland – where, upon spotting the boys’ yarmulkes, people felt free to shout “Heil Hitler” at them. The Lithuanian government regularly engages in various anti-Semitic activities, and the Jewish school in Paris where I picked up my charges as an au pair had to be protected by a fifteen-foot-high wall and police officers. Jews are routinely harassed, attacked, and killed – not for opposing Palestinian rights (in fact, many are attacked while participating at progressive rallies), but for having the gall to be Jewish. To say that Jews have no reason to want a country of our own – not to criticize the location of that country or the ethnic cleansing that has been occurring since its inception, but to claim that we were fine as we were – is a pretty profound act of hatred.

But maybe anti-Semitism didn’t play a role in those refugees’ deliberations. Georgia isn’t known for having a particularly high level of anti-Jewish sentiment. Even without hostility, though, there’s power in wanting to be around other people like you.

And despite (because of) the corruption, hawkishness, and racism riddling their government, Israelis do sincerely believe that it’s better to be a Jew in Israel than a Jew in the Diaspora. According to that logic, one’s arrival in Israel is a cause for celebration, even if the circumstances are tragic.

Which brings us back to the photo. I’m struck most by the contrast between the object and the face – the joyful, congratulatory gesture of a flag coupled with the fear and uncertainty of a refugee; the simplicity of nationalism at odds with the complexity of survival. Is the flag a distraction? An insult? Maybe she was smiling a moment before. As always, the issue of Palestine looms around the edges. Why does this child deserve a haven and a home more than a Palestinian does? Why can’t they both have it? To say that it has to be one or the other is unacceptable.

I don’t know how to accomplish this – not in this all-or-nothing climate. It saddens me that to acknowledge the humanity of both Jews and Arabs is, on either end of the political spectrum, an act of radicalism.

To the girl – if you or your family is reading this, I hope I didn’t use your image unfairly. I wish you the best of luck in your new home.

(Cross-posted at Alas, a Blog)

Great Postville Essay at Zeek

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center says:

Even in the dark, there is usually some prophetic voice warning of oncoming damage. In this case, prophetic calls to apply “eco-kosher” and “ethical kosher” standards not only to food but also to such consumables as coal, oil, plastics went back to the work of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the mid-’70s and my own book Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex and the Rest of Life in the mid-’90s. Calls for Jewish support for unionization and workers’ rights went back to 1911 and the 1930s, and the continuing work of the Jewish Labor Committee. Calls for a compassionate Jewish approach to immigration law went back to the work of HIAS, the Jewish Funds for Justice, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (in Chicago) in two different Jewish coalitions on immigration policy (one moderately liberal, one more progressive) in the mid-’00s.

All these warnings called out the necessity of action; few of the Jewish public got the point.

And then came Postville – not just one lightning flash but a thunderstorm, flash after flash lighting up broader and broader aspects of oppression.