The worker center in Austin that we've been collaborating with for years at Construction Citizen got some well-deserved recognition in the pages of the New York Times Sunday edition this weekend. Reporter Steven Greenhouse traveled to the capital city of Texas to profile the group that's taken on some of the problems in the construction industry and, at times, has landed some big victories.
The Workers Defense Project, founded in 2002, has emerged as one of the nation’s most creative organizations for immigrant workers. Its focus is the Texas construction industry, which employs more than 600,000 workers, about half of whom, several studies suggest, are unauthorized immigrants.
Immigrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are especially vulnerable to abuse by contractors. Each year, the Workers Defense Project, which has 2,000 dues-paying members, receives about 500 complaints from workers who say they were cheated out of overtime or denied a water break in Texas’ scorching summer heat or stuck with huge hospital bills for an on-the-job injury.
The Workers Defense Project is one of 225 worker centers nationwide aiding many of the country’s 22 million immigrant workers. The centers have sprouted up largely because labor unions have not organized in many fields where immigrants have gravitated, like restaurants, landscaping and driving taxis. And there is another reason: many immigrants feel that unions are hostile to them. Some union members say that immigrants, who are often willing to work for lower wages, are stealing their jobs.
Of course, Workers Defense is not without controversy within the construction industry. Some have embraced their tactics while others object:
Not all businesses object to the centers. The Workers Defense Project has made allies of many who dislike being undercut by what they call “low-road contractors” — for instance, those that do not provide workers’ compensation.
“It makes no sense — in Texas I’m required to have insurance on the cargo I haul up a construction elevator, but not on the workers in that elevator,” said Andy Anderson, owner of Linden Steel, which provides steel and labor to building projects.
Impressed by the Workers Defense Project’s success in helping immigrant workers and highlighting job safety, the Ford Foundation and others have showered it with grants. As a result, the project’s budget has swelled to $1 million — four times what it was just four years ago. The money has helped finance building site inspectors and safety and computer classes.
Many worker centers rely heavily on grants. “We’re flavor of the month right now,” Ms. Tzintzún said. “I worry what happens to our funding when we’re not.”
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