Many of the estimated 10,000 workers in the business here are illegal immigrants, who are too scared to speak out or give their bosses any excuse to fire them.
That's not the only obstacle, however. There are hundreds, if not thousands of car washes, and many are small businesses with just a couple outlets, so it requires many separate, time-consuming and expensive organizing drives. The owners, naturally, are resistant.
This isn't exactly the the new kind of labor organizing being advocated by the more modern labor leaders, who call for organizing bigger companies across an entire industry so that one company doesn't feel it's at a competitive disadvantage by being unionized. (Office janitors being a prime example.) Also, it's not clear the steelworkers union brings any expertise to the industry.
Still, organizers hope even the threat of unionization could prevent what is widely viewed as an abusive workplace culture at many of the outfits.
Greenhouse: California officials have estimated that two-thirds of the 500 carwashes in Los Angeles violate workplace laws. Many workers say they are paid just $35 for a 10-hour workday -- less than half the minimum wage -- and some say they are not paid for time during which no cars go through the wash. Others complain that they are not given gloves or goggles even though they often use stinging acids to clean tire rims.
Meanwhile, the law abiding car washes feel like they're getting screwed.
Randy Crestall, owner of Autospa Chevron Hand Wash in Valencia, a Los Angeles suburb, said that law-abiding owners resented their scofflaw competitors.
"They're a blight on our industry," said Mr. Crestall, a former president of the Western Carwash Association. "As good operators, we don't like them to be on the same playing field as us."
See for instance, this recent piece about brothers Benny and Nissan Pirian, owners of six carwashes, each sentenced to one year behind bars and ordered to cough up $1.25 million in unpaid wages to 54 workers.