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Fighting for Justicia

Workers Defense Project celebrates 10 years on the front lines of Texas labor

By Nora Ankrum, Fri., Sept. 21, 2012

Cristina Tzintzún (l) and Emily Timm
Cristina Tzintzún (l) and Emily Timm
Photo by Jana Birchum

Maria Duque first approached the Workers Defense Project in 2007. She hoped to recover her wages from a dry cleaner where she had worked for three weeks but received only one week's pay. When her boss not only refused to hand over the remaining wages but also threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Duque sought help from WDP – or PDL, as it's known in Spanish, for Proyecto Defensa Laboral. Right away, she felt she could trust the volunteers working on her case, says Duque (via translator and WDP intern Gloria Delgadillo). She could see that they were "doing all they could," and eventually she received her long overdue paycheck. Though her case was closed, her relationship with WDP had only just begun. Like many who seek help from WDP, Duque decided to become a member.

Duque attended talks, participated in leadership classes, and volunteered any way she could, she recalls. Her boss had intimidated her, and she wanted to learn about her rights. After about a year, she joined the board of directors. During her four-year tenure, she participated in the organization's move to a new building and helped expand WDP's class offerings to include English as a Second Language and computer instruction. Today, she is the sole woman on the organization's Construction Worker Committee, a role she chose because her husband works in construction. Like him, most construction workers tend to be the primary breadwinners in their households. If they get hurt, they're no longer able to provide for their families, she explains, so she wanted to work to protect families like hers. Duque's husband, son, and daughter are also members of WDP. "When I come here," she says, "it feels like home."

From Wages to Rights

Duque's personal trajectory is not unlike that of WDP itself. While the organization today carries out the same basic work that inspired its formation a decade ago, it has nonetheless grown so much, and in such surprising directions, that it's almost unrecognizable. WDP began as an offshoot of East Austin immigrant shelter Casa Maria­nel­la. Known back then as the Wage Claim Project, the fledgling effort had a simple mission: recovering unjustly withheld wages. Many of the shelter's clients were landing there, homeless, because they had not been paid for their work. The problem proved so pervasive – especially among construction workers – that a group of staff and volunteers turned their focus entirely toward helping people fight for their paychecks. In doing so, they were no longer just addressing the hardships of homelessness, but attacking one of its root causes: wage theft. That approach – digging ever deeper to root out the problems underlying injustices – has characterized the organization's efforts ever since.

From 2003 to 2006, WDP operated out of the Equal Justice Center, a public interest law firm that similarly assists low-income workers in pursuing wage claims. EJC shared resources and expertise with WDP, helping it lay the groundwork for becoming a fully independent organization in 2006, the year Julien Ross – one of WDP's founders and its only full-time staffer at the time – left to become director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. In his stead, longtime volunteers Cristina Tzintzún and Emily Timm took the helm. Tzintzún, who took on the role as WDP's executive director, was fresh out of college at the Univer­si­ty of Texas, where she had earned a degree in Latin American Studies. As Tzintzún describes it, she and Timm (WDP's policy analyst), then both in their mid-20s, had basically "fallen into leadership" at WDP. "I started at 21, was 24 when we took over, and didn't know how to do anything, pretty much, besides have a lot of passion," recalls Tzintzún. "And we almost failed, too. There were times we didn't pay ourselves. We didn't know if we were going to make it month to month."

On paper, Tzintzún and Timm may have seemed unlikely candidates for the job, but they were ambitious, especially when it came to making changes in Austin's construction industry, where 80% of WDP's members make their living. "I think it's another way to lift up their leadership capabilities that it's a bunch of construction workers sitting around, and there are two women at the front of the table," says Henry Allen. "That's unusual." Allen is the former director (retired in June) of the New York-based Discount Foundation, a national fund­er for WDP and other organizations that support low-wage workers. He notes that much of WDP's success is rooted in its worker-centered model, which Tzintzún and Timm have helped strengthen. "This is an organization that really does take its cue from the members," he says. "That's not without its challenges in terms of the time and focus and resources that are needed to take ordinary folks who are struggling every day in their work and their communities [while] helping to build and run an organization."

In 2006, Tzintzún and Timm oversaw an ambitious restructuring effort based on feedback from members and discussions with other organizations they admired. "We started to see that workers needed to have more of a role and voice in the organization, so that they could have a voice in their community," says Tzintzún. As a result, WDP altered the makeup of its board of directors to include at least 50% worker-members. It also expanded its organizational objectives to look beyond wage disputes to the conditions that gave rise to violations in the first place. "We realized that while it's important to recover people's wages, it's also important to change how workers were treated in the workplace beyond what the law said," says Tzintzún. "We can recover someone's minimum wage, but at the end of the day, that's not a decent wage to live [on]."

Building Austin, Building WDP

WDP scored its first major policy achievement on July 29, 2010, when the Austin City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring rest breaks for construction workers. The ordinance was inspired in part by a WDP report, based on a collaborative effort with UT and University of Illinois researchers, about working conditions in Austin's construction industry. WDP released the report – called "Building Austin, Building Injustice" – on June 16, 2009, just a week after three workers died in an 11-story fall during construction of 21 Rio, a West Cam­pus apartment complex. The somber timing drove home the report's underlying theme that, in Texas, such accidents were not isolated events, but rather the inevitable consequence of systemic disregard for the health and safety of workers throughout the construction industry. The report found high injury rates, low rates of health insurance coverage, and a lack of sufficient training among Austin construction workers. Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration advises that all workers complete its 10-hour safety training program, 64% of those surveyed reported having received none – a problem that poses risks for everyone on a job site, trained or not.

With "Building Austin," WDP succeeded in its goal of carrying out "one of the most comprehensive studies on the industry in the country." Yet the report's most revealing aspect might not have been the data itself, so much as the explicit contrast WDP drew between Austin's haves and have-nots – those who were living in the 21 Rios taking over the city's skyline and those risking their lives to build them. The report was released at a time when most of the country was suffering the blows of the recession – yet Austin remained relatively insulated. In 2009, it had the second-healthiest housing market in the country.

However, not all shared in the prosperity. The report noted that as the country's second-fastest-growing urban area, Austin was particularly dependent on the construction industry – yet construction workers were earning less than their counterparts in other states, their earnings were growing more slowly than those of other private sector jobs in Austin, and their opportunities for upward mobility were dwindling as employers cut back on training. In short, the report argued that while construction workers played a "vital role in the city's economy," few were reaping the benefits.

The message did not go unheard. Today, any construction site permitted by the city of Austin must prominently feature signs explaining the rest break ordinance; failure to post these signs or to provide breaks is a class C misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 per day per violation. City staff who did the background research for crafting the ordinance found little precedent for such a law, according to Public Works Direc­tor Howard Lazarus. While some states have statutes addressing rest and meal breaks, cities typically do not. The ordinance represented a major step for Austin, setting a national precedent.

"Building Austin" was also a turning point for WDP. It not only laid the groundwork for the ordinance, but prompted a statewide federal investigation of the construction industry. OSHA descended on Texas, conducting a blitz of about 900 inspections within just a few weeks. It ultimately issued nearly 1,500 citations, with accompanying fines reaching almost $2 million. And the report also helped cement WDP's reputation as a legitimate force to be reckoned with. "I think, understandably, there had been a distrust of a small organization, mostly run by women, working in the construction industry – and mostly representing poor, brown, and oftentimes undocumented folks," says Tzintzún.

"Believe me, there were a lot of people that were very skeptical at first about working with WDP," says Mike Cunningham, executive director of the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council of the AFL-CIO. His organization has worked with WDP since 2007, and he describes their relationship as very close. Nonetheless, the broader community associated WDP with undocumented workers, even mistaking it for a day labor site, he says. The report, says Cun­ning­ham, is "what really woke WDP up and everybody else. ... It was quite alarming to see how many workers were cheated and misclassified as independent contractors ... and losing their basic rights under the law."

Building on this success, WDP was able to strengthen unexpected partnerships with organizations like TBCTC, an unusual ally according to Allen. It is particularly impressive that WDP brought to the table "what are sometimes referred to as the more conservative elements in the labor movement, like building trades," he says. Allen attributes WDP's success to its ability to make the case that the two groups have fundamental interests in common.

WDP has been able to "change the public awareness of just how deadly construction jobs are," says Cunningham. He refers to "that old saying" to sum up his relationship with WDP: "A rising tide lifts all boats." It's a point of pride, says Tzintzún, that among the 200 or so worker justice centers in the U.S., WDP was the only one ever visited by Mark Ayers, the late national president of AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades.

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