Workers Defense Project

Editor’s Note: Portions of interviews have been translated from Spanish to English.

Members of advocacy group the Workers Defense Project hope UT students will consider their role in alleviating abuse and injustice against Texas construction workers.

At a meeting at the McCombs School of Business on Thursday night, representatives from the group addressed worker wage theft in Texas and the three workers who died during the construction of the 21 Rio high-rise apartment complex in summer 2009.

Workers’ rights issues such as wage theft are a major problem in the U.S., where 45 percent of workers earn poverty-level wages and 50 percent earn overtime pay when in reality 71 percent work more than 40 hours, according to the group’s presentation.

Katie Cullather, an intern and event organizer for the project, said 64 percent of workers have not received safety training and 76 percent of workers are not medically covered. An estimated 41 percent of workers do not receive rest breaks, while less than one-third of employers do not provide clean drinking water, Cullather said.

“We know that workers’ rights are important to students because construction is going on around campus, and as students, we walk around not noticing and taking for granted what they do,” said government sophomore Alma Buena and who volunteers with the project.

The project has worked on policies, directed workers’ rights cases, participated in protests and gathered grassroots support for the organization and their fight for fair treatment in the labor force, Cullather said.

“We want students to come out and support construction workers by coming out and participating in the Day of the Fallen to specifically honor those who have died at 21 Rio,” Cullather said.

The Day of the Fallen is set for March 2.

“The support would educate other people, not just students, but other people,” said sociology freshman Alejandra Nava. “We want everyone to know that everybody has rights regardless of their status.”

The group also works to educate immigrant workers about their rights and to help them fight for those rights.

“It helped gain knowledge of where to go to find out my rights,” said construction worker Juan Ignacio.

The presentation featured the personal accounts of Ignacio and Eli Rodriguez, workers who, with the help of the Workers Defense Project, received wage compensation from their employers.

“The Workers Defense Project always worries about our safety,” Rodriguez said. “Also, aside from being concerned about their safety, they worry about our economic status and provide a lot of moral support for their workers.”

The night’s events ended with the signing of the Build a Better Texas petition which advocates mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, rest breaks and state-funded 10-hour safety training courses. The petition also seeks to improve wage-pay procedures and prevent contractors from taking advantage of employees by misclassifying them as independent contractors for tax purposes.

Editor’s Note: Portions of interviews in this story were translated from Spanish. Felix Jimenez, an immigrant from Vera Cruz, Mexico, worked for an Austin roofing company for one year without receiving any pay. He and his wife, Brenda, sought the help of the Workers Defense Project to negotiate with the company to get earnings. Within a year, Jimenez obtained his wages, and he and his wife began working to help other families. “There are many times that we need to pay rent and pay bills, but there is no money to pay with,” Jimenez said. “It affects us because we can’t sleep without thinking, ‘How are we going to pay so we can live?’” The Workers Defense Project, a local organization that advocates for workers for fair employment, and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church hosted a dinner Thursday to support immigrant families during the holiday season. Wage theft — not being paid the legal minimum wage or being paid less than promised — has increased over the last decade, said Cristina Tzintzun, the director of the Workers Defense Project. She said the cases the organization gets are mostly from construction workers but also come from the restaurant and landscaping industries. Tzintzun said the organization helps recover wages by negotiating with the employers and taking legal and community action to resolve a case. “Our long-term goal is not to get their wages back but give them the tools to advocate for themselves,” Tzintzun said. “We give them training that will increase their earning potential at work, that will give them better jobs. We also work on the weak laws that exist to ensure workers have more tools to better defend themselves.” St. Andrew’s Rev. Jim Rigby said his congregation has worked with the organization for the past two years. His church is currently collecting Christmas gifts for the families’ children. Although, in the past, community members asked for gaming systems or other expensive gifts, families from the organization ask for more common items such as socks. He said working with the families was a rewarding experience. “These families are working really hard to try to turn things around, but they have a really hard life,” Rigby said. “So it’s very rewarding to respond to that sincere effort.” American culture is often defined by possessions, Rigby said. He said although these families are experiencing physical poverty, our society experiences spiritual poverty because people don’t like to share what they have with the world. “I think an organization like the Workers Defense Project gives us an opportunity to move past that,” Rigby said. “By feeding people physically, we are fed spiritually.”