07/12/2009 12:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Workonomics 101: Car Wash, Boss?

"Ooh, ooh, You might not ever get rich
But let me tell ya, It's better than diggin' a ditch"

This opening line from the title song to the movie Car Wash starring Richard Pryor rings particularly true during another summer of car travel, "green" cars and yes, car washes. But if you're trying to become "The Man" at a car wash and run the joint yourself, be prepared to dig yourself out of a financial ditch. Beneath the gleam, here are some numbers:

The Average cost of a car wash -- $15-25, depending on where you live, type of service.

The Average # of car washes done in an hour: 18

The Average salary of a car wash attendant - $18,000/yr or $9.00/hr

So let's say that car wash attendant has in his hope of hopes, dream of dreams, to one day own their own car wash and provide a better way of life for his family, pay his for-decades-exploited co-workers (like in the movie and yes, real life) a better wage, bring justice to the unjust one droplet or soapsud at a time. What would it take?

The minimal amount of investment required to start a one-lane car wash is $160,000. Minimal.

At 20,000/yr, saving a whopping 25% a year, it would take that attendant 32 years to buy their own car wash. Save 50%? 16 years. Assuming there is no inflation in the cost of equipment and land prices and nothing catastrophic or major like say, buying a car, or getting surgery, comes up.

No wonder folks are trying to seek justice for car wash workers in the Car Wash Mecca of Los Angeles. When some 40 employees decided in April 2008 to exercise their rights to organize a union to bargain collectively at Vermont Car Wash, they became subject to threats, intimidation, humiliation, unlawful interrogation and surveillance, according to the complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Vermont Hand Wash management has been charged with targeting and firing three union leaders because of their union activities. The situation is improving but needs something like the Employee Free Choice Act to really set it off. So much for rags to riches. Meanwhile, as the song says...

"Work and Work
Well, those cars never seem to stop coming
Work and work
Keep those rags and machines humming"