Fighting for Justicia

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

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.

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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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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