Point Austin: They Died in Your City
Austin is built by workers subject to institutionalized injustice
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
– Woody Guthrie, "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos"
Sixty years later, Woody Guthrie's 1948 poem (later set to music by Martin Hoffman) remains all too timeless a tale. Guthrie was writing about migrant farmworkers subject to casual exploitation as laborers and arbitrary deportation as "illegals." Farmworkers, like those later organized so valiantly by Cesar Chavez, were once the most prominent faces of mass Central American economic migration. Now in U.S. cities, they are perhaps more likely recognized as service or construction industry workers, but their histories are much the same.
The common story was reiterated this month by the fates of three construction workers – Raudel Ramirez, Wilson Irias, and Jesus Lopez – who fell to their deaths June 10 while building a West Campus high-rise. The Department of Labor is investigating (primarily federal law governs worker safety in Texas), but it seems apparent that the three men were not wearing required safety equipment that could have saved their lives. They were also immigrants – Ramirez from Mexico, Irias and Lopez from Honduras, among the great wave of Latino workers who travel from Central America to support their families back home.
By coincidence, the deaths of these three may not be as quickly forgotten as the 150 or so who die in construction "accidents" in Texas during the average year, at a rate much higher than in other states. A few days after the June 10 incident, the Workers Defense Project released a report, Building Austin, Building Injustice, in an attempt to quantify the state of working conditions in Austin's construction industry. What they found too often confirms what one might expect from a lightly regulated Texas industry in what until recently had been boom times: poverty-level wages, fly-by-night pay practices including wage theft, little health insurance or other benefits, dangerous and unsafe working conditions carrying high risk of injuries and death, and few legal protections against exploitation. As a result of these recent deaths, the WDP report has already garnered more headline coverage than it likely would have received otherwise.
Woody Guthrie would have recognized the pattern.
Workers Are Expendable
The report itself – produced in collaboration with researchers from UT-Austin and the University of Illinois at Chicago, with help from the IBEW union, and based on surveys of hundreds of workers as well as interviews with employers – is careful and deliberative. Until recently, the Workers Defense Project, a membership-based nonprofit with more than 350 worker members, has mainly been known for organizing protests targeted at developers or contractors accused of failing to pay employees for work performed. By putting pressure on employers, they've secured many thousands of dollars for workers with little legal recourse under Texas law (complaints to the Texas Workforce Commission may languish for years). According to WDP staffer Emily Timm, organizers began to realize that abusive wage practices were most common in the Austin construction industry, often effectively a black market for unscrupulous subcontractors and vulnerable day labor. "There appeared to be widespread and commonplace abuses," Timm said, "so we wanted to look closer at the industry and try to quantify what is going on."
The numbers are imposing in themselves and in what they suggest about industry operations:
• Construction is a Top 10 local industry, employing more than 50,000 workers.
• Despite a decade's booming economy, construction workers' wages have grown at a rate 11% less than other private sector workers, and despite the high local cost of living, they earn two to three dollars less per hour than counterpart workers in other states.
• By federal standards, 45% of surveyed workers earn less than poverty-level wages.
• And 20% report having been denied wages for work performed (a common practice is never paying the "held-back" week's wages at the start of a job); 50% report not being paid overtime despite 12- to 14-hour days and weekend work.
• Twenty percent have suffered job injuries requiring medical attention, 64% lack required health and safety training, and nearly half (47%) are expected to provide their own safety equipment; most have no health insurance.
It's a grim and shameful record, made worse by official neglect, especially at the state level, where workers compensation insurance is not required and unions that might protect vulnerable workers are not just roundly despised but actively obstructed. The city of Austin is somewhat better on its own projects, enforcing prevailing wage and safety standards. Asked what the city can do about apparent violations on private projects like the one at 21st and Rio Grande, the general response was, not much.
Remember Their Names
As the report acknowledges at some length, there are major firms that not only obey the law but insist on wage, health, and safety standards for all their projects. Glenn Garrett of KST Electric told Tuesday's rally that his company is regularly underbid by contractors who cut wage and safety corners in order to lowball the competition, but KST has found that treating workers fairly has paid financial benefits in stability and low employee turnover. "Besides," Garrett said, "we have to go home and sleep at night." Garrett told me he puts little stock in the claims of contractors who say they can't control the unscrupulous actions of subcontractors. "They know the records of those people when they receive their project proposals," he said, "and they can check those records."
Beyond noting that the Travis Co. construction work force is now 78% Hispanic, the report barely touches on the question of immigrant labor. As Timm told me, "Workers are enduring the same conditions, whatever their national status." Yet it's also apparent that undocumented immigrant workers have even less recourse against employers than do U.S. citizens; the threat of deportation is quite a hammer against complaint. Anyone who's ever worked a day of manual labor knows that a new man on a high-rise job can say little when a boss tells him he'll be working without harness, lifeline, or hard hat, that 30 minutes for lunch or water is his only break time, and that "straight time" means whatever appears on his paycheck at the end of the week. You don't ask questions; you get to work.
The inevitable results include the casual deaths of young men like Raudel Ramirez, Wilson Irias, and Jesus Lopez. Perhaps the shame of their deaths in Austin, and the work of groups like the Workers Defense Project, will mean that this time, their names will not be forgotten.