Fighting for Justicia

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

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Walking Hand in Hand

Though WDP focuses considerably on a male-dominated industry, it also addresses issues women face, not only in the workplace but as WDP members. Duque notes that WDP's leadership development course, which addresses gender equality issues, helped her approach her role as the only woman on the Construction Worker Com­mit­tee.

"We understand that workers' rights are connected to various issues, including gender equality. The rights of immigrants in the workplace, rights of people of color in the workplace, LGBT folks .... Workers in general don't have as much of a voice in the workplace as they should," says Tzintzún. "So it's been important not just to educate women about their rights in the workplace but to also educate men about the rights of women in the workplace." Despite stereotypes about sexism within the Latino immigrant community, says Tzintzún, she has found that "the men in our organization are very supportive of women's rights in the workplace. ... It makes sense to people that discrimination against one class of people is allowing discrimination against everyone."

WDP's "commonsense vision" toward collaboration is a large part of its continued momentum, says Allen. "They built alliances with unions, with faith groups, with immigrant rights groups, with business groups that were ethical and wanted to take the high road and didn't want to be undercut by unscrupulous, unethical employers," he points out. WDP's collaborative capabilities were on full display during the legislative session in 2011, when it coordinated with rights groups around the state to organize Day of the Fallen. Underscoring the dangers of the Texas construction industry, demonstrators arranged 138 coffins on the Capitol front lawn, representing the number of industry deaths statewide in 2009. According to WDP's report – which was dedicated to the 142 Texas construction workers who died on the job in 2007 – Texas' fatalities dramatically surpass the number of construction-related deaths in any other state. "I can tell you we had union members come in from all over the state and walk hand in hand with nonunion workers. Years ago, you would not have seen this," says Cunningham. "This wasn't about union or nonunion workers. ... This was to show that construction work is dangerous."

WDP has made significant inroads with developers over the last year, among them the nonprofit Foundation Communities, which agreed in November 2011 to let WDP conduct safety and wage monitoring at the site of its Arbor Terrace development in South Austin. It also allowed WDP to provide safety training for nearly 80 workers who had not been trained, says WDP business liaison Gregorio Casar, and agreed to pay all full-time workers a living wage. Most recently, Apple and Trammel Crow have made commitments, at City Coun­cil's behest, to work with WDP on similar agreements in building Apple's new North Austin facility and the Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment project.

Workers Defense Project members and supporters rallied for fair wages and job safety at City Hall Sept. 11 as the council discussed a proposed incentives deal to bring a new manufacturing center to Austin.
Workers Defense Project members and supporters rallied for fair wages and job safety at City Hall Sept. 11 as the council discussed a proposed incentives deal to bring a new manufacturing center to Austin. (Photo by John Anderson)

As WDP looks forward to its 10th anniversary celebration Sept. 27, it continues to expand its objectives. The organization is particularly notable for its "broader vision about how ... you change policies that are at the root cause of what's happening to these workers," says Allen. Among the qualities that originally impressed the Discount Foundation, he says, is WDP's recognition "that really what they were confronting – a lot of those grievances couldn't be resolved just in Austin. They had to look statewide." As part of its efforts to broaden its reach, WDP opened its first satellite office on Sept. 5, in Dallas. It is also working on a follow-up to the "Building Austin" report, this one having a statewide focus, with 70 researchers conducting surveys and interviews throughout Texas.

'Justicia ... Ahora!'

Even as the organization celebrates its progress and expands its outlook, WDP's members remain focused on the ongoing project of improving the lives of workers here in Austin. Today, the scope of that effort is on full display at its Tuesday-night juntas, weekly general meetings held at 5604 Manor. The brightly painted East Aus­tin community center serves as a shared headquarters for WDP's 15 staff members (and nearly 1,000 worker members) as well as the Third Coast Activist Resource Center (a progressive information clearinghouse) and Cooperation Texas (which helps organize worker-based co-ops). Nearly 80 people showed up on a warm night in July, filling the center with bustling activity. Workers checked in on their claims, some retiring to a back room to meet with attorneys on an ongoing case. Others sought to initiate new claims. First-timers attended orientation, where they got a crash course in both workers' rights ("If you're injured ... don't sign anything without understanding it or without getting copies") and WDP opportunities, which include classes for kids and adults, committee work, and community involvement.

It's sometimes fun, sometimes serious, noted the speaker, recalling the vigil WDP had organized a week earlier, in memory of construction worker José Wilfredo Laínez, who died July 15 of heat exhaustion while helping build the new flyovers connecting highways 183 and 290. As a state project, highway construction is not issued permits by the city and is therefore not subject to the rest break ordinance.

Most of the junta attendees gathered in the main hall to hear a series of speakers, all of whom spoke in Spanish. Newly initiated members addressed the crowd one at a time, each receiving a round of applause. "I've been coming here for six months," one man told the onlookers. "I keep coming back to support others. I feel safer here." Intern Vic­toria Johnson implored attendees to join the busy Membership Com­mittee. Repre­sent­atives from OSHA encouraged the crowd to report their concerns: "If you're exposed to danger, it's important that you communicate with us. All information is kept confidential. We're here to protect you."

After each person spoke, everyone clapped. Every meeting is "part pep rally," joked Timm, who stood at the back of the crowd, watching and translating. She's still surprised, she said, at how many new people walk through the door each week seeking help. "It's this big of a problem?" she said in disbelief. The final speaker addressed the room, launching into a chant that grew louder with each line. "What is it we want?" she asked. "Justicia," replied the crowd. "Cuando?" she asked. "Ahora."

Moments in WDP History

August 2002: A group of Casa Marianella staff and volunteers form the Wage Claim Project.

Summer 2003: The project moves to the Equal Justice Center, adopts a new name: Central Texas Immigrant Workers Rights Center.

2005: CTIWRC becomes the Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defenso Laboral.

2006: WDP moves out of EJC, undergoes restructuring.

Fall 2008: WDP begins collecting data on wages, workplace safety issues, and discrimination among Austin construction workers.

June 10, 2009: Wilson Joel Irias Cerritos, Raudel Ramirez Camacho, and Jesus Angel Lopez Perez are killed in an 11-story fall at 21 Rio.

June 16, 2009: WDP publishes "Building Austin, Building Injustice," prompting statewide federal investigation of construction industry.

April 2010: OSHA convenes first National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety in Houston; WDP plays instrumental role.

May 2010: WDP celebrates grand opening of its new home, 5604 Manor, a community center shared with Third Coast Activist Resource Center and Cooperation Texas.

July 2010: City Council approves Rest Break Ordinance. WDP announces strategic partnership with OSHA, expanding workers' access to the agency and opportunities for safety and workers' rights education.

March 2, 2011: Union and nonunion organizations from around the state join WDP for Day of the Fallen; a display of 138 coffins on the Capitol front lawn represents the number of Texas construction workers who died on the job in 2009.

July 2011: WDP launches CEPA, a safety-training program developed with an OSHA grant and tailored specifically to low-literacy and monolingual Spanish speakers.

April 2012: City Council requires Apple to negotiate with WDP on an agreement regarding safety and fair wages at the construction site of its new North Austin facility.

May 2012: Trammel Crow agrees at Council behest to pay prevailing wage to workers and allow site monitoring at the Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment project.

Sept. 5, 2012: WDP opens Dallas office.

Sept. 27, 2012: WDP celebrates 10th anniversary.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Workers Defense Project, Maria Duque, Casa Marianella, Proyecto Defensa Laboral, workers' rights, construction, 21 Rio, Emily Timm, Cristina Tzintzun, Cristina Tzintzún, minimum wage, living wage, lost wages, OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mike Cunningham, Legislature

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