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Union Summer—An Education in Union and Community Organizing

Cuahuctemoc Salinas marches in a boycott picket line. He is in the orange vest.

A question Cuahuctemoc Salinas often gets when he tells carwash customers about the poor working conditions carwash workers experience is “So why are they still working here?”

To which he replies:

They’re afraid. Jobs are sacred right now. They have to provide for their families.

Like any employed person in this time of stubbornly high unemployment, carwash workers in Los Angeles know these are not the best of times to start looking for a new job. They have bills to pay and families to provide for. Just like everyone else.

Salinas, an intern with the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education's DREAM Resource Center's summer program, is participating in AFL-CIO’s 2012 Union Summer program in Los Angeles. The two-month Union Summer educational program aims to introduce participants to the labor movement and organizing in six locations around the country. In the case of the L.A. program, participants like Salinas are learning about union and community organizing and building community support for carwash workers or “carwasheros,” as they’re popularly known, trying to gain a voice in their workplace and encouraging people to support union carwashes. They’re also building relationships with local unions by participating in solidarity actions, including the anti-Wal-Mart march through Chinatown several weeks ago.

The people posing the question to Salinas do so while waiting in line to get their cars washed. Salinas approaches each car ready to share with its driver important reasons not to patronize the carwash. Quite simply, he shares with them what the carwash workers have to deal with on a day-to-day basis: abusive managers, lack of proper tools or training, low pay, no health insurance and bosses who are trying to block their freedom to come together in a union and bargain for a better life. And if that fails to drive customers away, there’s always the boycott picket line.

Not Your Typical Summer Experience

“When I think of summer internships, I think of working in front of a computer monitor, compiling lists or something,” Salinas says. “But this isn’t like that at all.”

Before Union Summer, Salinas, who is 19, never participated in a boycott picket line—or any kind of picket line, for that matter. But a month into Union Summer, his initial reserve has long subsided.

Meant to educate and dissuade potential carwash customers from patronizing abusive carwashes, these boycott picket lines don’t work with all customers, however.

Nowadays, when customers are unresponsive, Salinas uses their rejection to motivate himself to keep going, to shout louder and walk faster. Just like he’s done for years.

Working Toward the DREAM

Born in Acapulco, Mexico, Salinas moved to this country with his mom and older brother at age two. He had to leave home when he was 16 and, for the remainder of high school, lived with a good friend of his, spending two hours just commuting to and from school every day. Life was much more difficult all right, but he didn’t give up. He stayed in school and excelled.

Now a sophomore at University of California, Berkeley, he’s also part of a growing number of young aspiring citizens around the country, known as DREAMers, who have fearlessly and relentlessly pushed for passage of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration policy reform in Congress. Their efforts played a key role in President Obama’s recent executive order to halt deportations of young aspiring citizens.

His Union Summer experience has helped him see the value of organizing and has motivated him to organize within the immigrant and Chicano communities for years to come.

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