"Compañero, how do they treat you here?"
The stranger addressed Manuel Varela, a worker at Nary's Hand Car Wash on Beverly Boulevard, in Spanish.
"Badly," Varela answered, continuing to pass tickets to motorists as they pulled in.
Curious, Gabriel Chavez crawled out of the car he was vacuuming. Keeping his gaze on the small window that the owner used to peer at his workers, he stepped toward the visitor, out of his boss' sightline.
"Do you know you have rights?" the stranger asked Chavez.
The man's name was Mario Giron. He was a union organizer, promising a route to better pay and working conditions. As he explained, Chavez eyed the window. Twice, he raced back to vacuum cars, then returned.
Before leaving, Giron slipped the workers a card, urging them to attend a meeting.
Both men vividly recalled organizers' stealthy visit to Nary's in Los Angeles last March, the first in an effort by two of the nation's largest unions, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers, to organize Southern California's 18,000 carwasheros, many of them illegal immigrants.
During the next year, at carwash after carwash, the organizers would crouch between rows of cars, whispering plans to right the wrongs in the industry. Sometimes they were evicted by owners or police, sometimes shunned by workers themselves.
"If they fire me," one Pasadena car dryer sneered, "will you pay my salary?"
Organizers, who will formally announce their campaign today, hope to reverse what they see as sweatshop conditions at many of the region's 1,000 hand carwashes.
A Times investigation published Sunday showed that many carwash owners flout state labor laws, paying workers less than half of minimum wage or insisting that employees work as propineros, or for tips only.
Owners say unionization will only raise costs for operators and push up prices for consumers. It could lead to job losses as well, if the industry embraces mechanization.
"The only winners of a union drive would be the people behind the drive," said Randy Cressall, a carwash owner and board member of the Western Carwash Assn., an industry trade group. "Consumers would be hurt by this."
Organizers eventually hope to create a steelworkers union local with a collective bargaining agreement. For now, the strategy is to embolden a skittish workforce and appeal to the consciences of consumers. They hope, with the aid of politicians, priests and, when necessary, pickets, to persuade motorists to use carwashes only if owners have signed pledges to hew to the law.
Labor experts say they are borrowing from successful campaigns by immigrant janitors, drywallers and home healthcare workers in Los Angeles. Despite opposition from some rank-and-file members, union leaders who once rejected illegal immigrants as serious prospects increasingly see them as a way to revive the flagging union movement.
Success is far from assured. The story of the unions' yearlong courtship of Nary's workers is one measure of the challenge.
That first day the organizers came, Varela's insides churned with worry. He was terrified at the thought of losing this job. But he felt his boss owed him -- all of them -- more than the $3 to $4 an hour they typically were paid. He would see what this union meeting was all about.
Chavez balked. His family in Chiapas was counting on the money he sent. Without it, his 5-year-old daughter wouldn't have a school uniform or supplies.
How could this stranger dressed in a T-shirt help him? "Why am I going to get in trouble? Lose my job?" he scoffed to Varela.
Varela knew other co-workers would be just as reluctant to challenge the boss, Patrick Lo. Still, anger simmered among many of Lo's men. Two vacuumers, Chavez and Guadalupe Lima, 46, had asked for a raise in 2006 but said Lo refused, citing sparse business. Meanwhile, Lo and his wife drove three cars, including a pricey Audi Q7. He told workers he owned a jewelry business and showed off what appeared to be a gold watch.
Lima quit in frustration.
Varela didn't want to quit. There was no guarantee he'd find a better job. He began encouraging his co-workers to go to the first union meeting in April. "We are giving away our work," he whispered to them as they dried cars.
Soon, Varela, had 11 of 13 workers on board, even Chavez.
Month after month, at Wednesday-night meetings in the Pico-Union area, Nary's workers sat among dozens of carwasheros who'd straggled in after work from all over Los Angeles. Like the Nary's workers, these men were being paid $40 a day -- or less -- for up to 12 hours of work. They said their bosses threatened and screamed at them.
"The bosses think you are poor, ignorant, meek immigrants," organizer Giron said. "Prove them wrong."
Organizers invoked the example of heroes including Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. But the Nary's men seemed to be swayed most by their peers, particularly a ponytailed worker from Pico Car Wash in Los Angeles.
"We have to speak up," said Juan Zamora, who with 12 co-workers was suing his boss for back wages. "Compañeros, in war, you lose things, but you also gain!"
The Nary's men stood and clapped heartily.
At work, Varela began to confront Lo.
"You are violating our rights," Varela recalled telling the owner. "Why don't you follow the law?"
According to accounts by both men, Lo promoted him from dryer to detailer, boosted his pay to $50 a day -- and told him to stop talking about wages.
After conferring with organizers, Nary's workers authorized an alliance of nonprofit groups working with the steelworkers to send Lo a warning to stop violating labor laws.
When the letter arrived, Lo bolted out of his office. "Who fingered me?" workers recalled him saying. "Tu sabes! You know!" the owner said, pointing at Varela.
Lo later stressed to a reporter that he treated workers well. "They never say good things," the Cambodian native said. "They always say a bad thing."
Lo's attorney, Jonathan Primuth, acknowledged that Lo did not always pay what the law required. Neither did other carwashes, Primuth said, adding that Lo had to pay less to stay competitive.
Tensions between Lo and his men worsened.
In July, 11 Nary's workers voted to squeeze Lo with a picket. As cars idled along Beverly Boulevard awaiting a wash one Saturday, organizers arrived and unfurled a large banner that read "Justice for Car Wash Workers."
"He is a bad owner," an activist said through a megaphone. " Please don't use this carwash." Turning to Lo, he barked, "Stop stealing their wages!"
Lo looked stricken.
The driver of an F-150 truck slowed to enter Nary's -- but an organizer leaned into his side window and convinced him to drive on. It was the same with drivers of an Astrovan and a Volkswagen. Each departure drew joyful whoops from picketers.
Soon, all of Lo's vacumeros sat idle. He was forced to shut down.
The organizers, jubilant, left smiling and chanting.
That day, Lo promised to start paying minimum wage. "We have made him respect our rights!" Varela beamed.
A week later, seven of the workers filed a wage lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, demanding back pay for the last four years of more than $300,000.
Four days after that, Lo called nine of the 11 workers who had attended union meetings and fired them.
He sold Nary's, which was renamed Sam's Car Wash, to a relative.
At the next union meeting at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, the workers were serious, scared. Victor Narro, the center's project director, assured them that more pickets would bring Nary's to heel. Successful campaigns, he said, took years to hit their stride.
The fired Nary's workers were divided over how worthwhile their effort had been.
"I'd like to do something about this injustice," Chavez said later. But why had progress been so slow? What had they achieved?
What he wanted most was to settle the lawsuit with Nary's and go home to Mexico. "Making history," Chavez said, "means less than getting my money and leaving."
In September, Varela was picked up by immigration authorities on an old deportation order.
He was sent back to Honduras the next month.
Reached by telephone in Progreso, where he is now living, he voiced no regrets.
"I pray that Nary's will be an example for other owners," he said. "When I started this, I wanted to change things for everyone who works in a carwash, who is humiliated, badly treated, paid unjustly. God willing, this will happen."