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The Whole Star

Duane Buck
Duane Buck was sentenced to death in 1997. His attorneys are appealing the sentence, citing testimony that claimed Buck was more dangerous because he is black. Photo from Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In 1997, a Harris County jury sentenced Duane Buck to death for a double murder. During the sentencing phase of the trial, a psychologist testified Buck was more dangerous and likely to reoffend simply because he was black.

Buck’s lawyers’ appeals have reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which initially stayed his execution before deciding in November not to review the case. On Wednesday, his attorneys appealed the death sentence in Harris County, citing a study released the same day that shows minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death in the county.

The study, by University of Maryland criminology professor Raymond Paternoster, found that from 1992 to 1999, Harris County prosecutors sought the death penalty for African-Americans more than three times as often as they did for whites with similar cases. Hispanics fared even worse—the DAs pushed for capital punishment four times as often for Hispanics as they did for whites.

Juries were slightly more even-handed, the study finds, but not by much—African-Americans were sentenced to death twice as often as whites, and Hispanics got the death penalty three times as often.

The psychologist who testified in Buck’s case, Dr. Walter Quijano, provided “expert” testimony in countless criminal cases in Texas at the time, and claimed race partly determined “dangerousness” in at least seven cases. While reviewing one of those cases in 2000, then-Attorney General John Cornyn recommended all seven offenders get a new sentencing hearing. Six of the cases got a do-over, and all those offenders (four Hispanics and two African-Americans) were re-sentenced to death.

Buck’s case never went up for a resentencing hearing. The state said his case was different from the others because the defense—not the prosecution—called Quijano to the stand. Most of the Supreme Court agreed. In a dissenting opinion, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan argued that the prosecutor revisited the race factor “in a question specifically designed to persuade the jury that Buck’s race made him more dangerous and that, in part on this basis, he should be sentenced to death.”

The Supreme Court made its decision in Nov. 2011, but Buck’s legal team filed its appeal in Harris County’s 208th Criminal District Court on Wednesday.

“I think it’s important that race not play a factor at all in capital prosecution,” Kate Black, one of Buck’s attorneys, tells the Observer. “To have Dr. Quijano’s testimony in cases with black defendants such as Mr. Buck’s is problematic and it’s been corrected in the other six cases except for Mr. Buck’s.”

Harris County has executed more people than any other county in the U.S. Its 117 executions are more than any other state besides Texas. Blacks have accounted for 56 percent of its executions since 1984, though just 19 percent of the county’s population is African-American. Despite the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, Buck’s attorneys think they have a good chance of getting him a new sentence.

For one thing, they have the study. They also have one of Buck’s former victims—who was injured during his fatal attack on his ex-girlfriend and a male acquaintance—asking the state to overturn the execution. Joining her is one of Buck’s former prosecutors, former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin.

Buck’s team will await the state court’s decision, but Black says they will appeal to the Supreme Court if they are denied.

Jason Cato, Workers Defense Project
Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzun unveils study that found half of Texas construction workers are undocumented.

As the immigration debate continues on the national stage, one issue is consistently left out of the conversation: workers’ rights.

Texas has the second-largest undocumented population in the country, and in 2011 the state accounted for 16 percent of construction permits issued in the U.S. (more than Florida and California combined). Many undocumented immigrants take construction jobs, becoming easy targets for employers trying to cut costs by exploiting workers.

The Austin-based nonprofit organization, Workers Defense Project, says workers’ rights need to be part of the conversation as legislators in Washington, D.C. hash out immigration reform. On Thursday the group released a study, “Build a Better Nation,” that found 50 percent of all construction workers in Texas are undocumented. Workers Defense and University of Texas researchers surveyed 1,194 construction workers in Austin, Houston, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio for the study. About 70 percent of construction workers in Texas are concentrated in these areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I think it’s pretty shocking that one in two [construction] workers in the state is undocumented,” says Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Workers Defense Project. “I think it shows why Texas desperately needs immigration reform, because it’s an industry that’s critical to our state’s economy.”

Roughly “one in every 13 people in the Texas workforce labors in construction, meaning as many as 400,000 Texas construction workers are undocumented,” according to the study. These undocumented workers are exploited more than U.S.-born workers, the study finds. One in four undocumented workers experienced wage theft, while less than one in 10 U.S.-born workers had their wages stolen. Only 14 percent of undocumented workers made a living wage in 2011 in Texas, while 42 percent of American workers did.

The finding comes after another recent study released by the group in January that highlighted violations against construction workers in Texas and the conditions in which these laborers, largely immigrants, live (or die).

Tzintzún says federal immigration reform talks have mostly ignored workers’ rights. President Obama’s draft on immigration reform centered around providing a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, while the Gang of Eight bipartisan senators proposed a similar but slower solution, contingent on further beefing up of Border Patrol.

Meanwhile, she says, immigrant workers are afraid of reporting dangerous working conditions and abuse because employers threaten them with deportation. The problem can be exacerbated with guest-worker programs, which tie an immigrant’s ability to stay in the country to his or her employer.

This has become a favored talking point for conservatives that have recently jumped on the reform bandwagon (mostly businessmen and politicians reeling from low Latino support in the election). Conservatives want immigrant workers to be legally able to come into the country and work when they’re needed, but go home when they’re not.

Tzintzún and other workers’ rights activists, on the other hand, think the guest-worker system is broken and that a pathway to citizenship is the only option that ensures workers are protected. But whether conservatives will be willing to put workers’ rights first and get behind a pathway to citizenship remains to be seen.

immigration reform
Priscila Mosqueda
Immigrants' rights groups demonstrate at Capitol to demand immigration reform.

A steady throng of demonstrators marched down Congress Ave. to the Capitol Friday morning, carrying huge colorful banners and signs with messages like “I was born in the USA – Don’t take my mommy and daddy away!” and “End detentions now!” The demonstrators came from all over the state and represented about 30 organizations calling for “fair and just immigration reform that provides dignity and rights for all.”

Immigration reform rallies in 2006 drew massive crowds (Dallas reportedly had 500,000 demonstrators) and were predominantly staged in response to the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act pushed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin). Though the march today was much smaller (the Austin Police Department estimates less than 1,000 people participated), the message was still clear: immigrants are coming out of the shadows and demanding that the federal government finally pass an immigration reform plan that grants them more rights.

immigration reform

Chants like “Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” dominated the morning, or “Obama, listen, we are still fighting!” Downtown traffic was temporarily stopped as Austin Police Department officers on motorcycles escorted protesters down the street to the Capitol. A man carrying a large United States flag led the march, followed by a group holding a white banner that said “Texans Demand Fair Immigration Reform!” in red, black and blue.

Participants rolled into Austin by the busload, arriving from Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. Ramona Casas of ARISE, a non-profit organization that serves colonias, says their bus carrying 57 people set out for Austin at 3 a.m.

“We want them to hear us in there,” Esther Reyes of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition said, pointing to the pink granite Capitol building. “Si, se puede! We’re here today because we want to be recognized as citizens of this great country!”

Protesters, largely Hispanic immigrants, waved miniature American flags as the national anthem was sung. The crowd included children wrapped in blankets, huge groups of DREAMers from all over the state, as well as elderly people with walkers and canes, all holding signs and chanting. Labor unions were also present and faith leaders were among the speakers. Activists demanded immigration reform that includes an end to criminalization, deportations and detentions; an end to militarization of the border; and a pathway to citizenship that leaves no one out.

immigration reform

“The time of immigration reform has arrived. This is and will be our year,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. “… millions of families, millions of people that are as American as any other American – those Americans that don’t have documents – this is the moment for those families.”

Luis Maldonado, a DREAMer from the Rio Grande Valley, said President Obama’s Deferred Action program, which stays deportations and provides temporary work authorization for some immigrants who came here as children, is not enough.

“Our families need to be incorporated into this movement,” Maldonado said. “Just like the DREAMers and the allies fought for [Deferred Action], now let’s fight for comprehensive, fair and just immigration reform that will not take decades for myself and my family to become citizens.”

Demonstrators emphasized that today will not be the last time they march. On Feb. 27, they are taking their demands to Washington, D.C., in a “Day for Border Advocacy.”

The Texas Compact can be found online at

The topic of immigration is seldom discussed these days in the Texas Legislature, but Texans still want a seat at the table in Washington, D.C., where immigration reform has finally gained traction and bipartisan support. A group of conservative religious and business leaders, pushing a set of immigration goals they call the Texas Compact, wants to ensure Texas has a role in new immigration laws by lobbying Texas’ federal legislators to get behind reform.

“[This] … is our moment in history to write the chapter on how Texas, and our country eventually, handles with dignity, humanity and in our best interest our immigration issue,” said Marcia Nichols, co-chair of the Compact, during a press conference call Tuesday. “The reality living in Texas is we have always had an integral part of our community that have been immigrants. We have been behind the curve in adopting sensible, fair approaches to this reality.”

The Texas Compact is modeled after the Utah Compact on immigration, a plan released three years ago. The Texas Compact outlines five principles: creating solutions for immigration reform at the federal level; encouraging law enforcement to differentiate between criminals and undocumented immigrants; recognizing the vital impact immigrants have on the U.S. economy and enabling them to have a greater impact; putting an end to the practice of separating families through deportation; and facilitating undocumented immigrants’ participation in a “free society.”

Texas is the fourth state to adopt such a compact, drafted largely by conservative religious and business leaders. In the press conference call Tuesday, moderated by former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, business representatives from Houston and members of the evangelical and law enforcement communities talked about the state’s need for immigration reform. The Compact has signatories from all over the state, including Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

Compact Co-chair Mike Nichols was also on the call and compared the immigration issue to the fight for civil rights. Nichols is the Chairman of Houston’s Financial Task Force and a former Senior Vice President at Sysco Corp. He said Texas congressmen seem to be afraid to support immigration reform, and the Compact is a means to encourage them to do so by showing them Texans of all stripes will back them up. The key, the authors agreed, is for legislators to act now.

President Obama has also lately criticized Congress’ lack of action on immigration reform. During his State of the Union address last Tuesday, he urged Congress to write immigration legislation. On Saturday night, the newspaper USA Today reported that a leaked White House draft on immigration would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status within eight years, among other provisions. Though Obama says he will await bipartisan legislation from Congress, he has said he’ll move forward if Congress does not act, and that this immigration proposal will be his back-up plan.

Marcia Nichols and other members supporting the Texas Compact say nothing will be gained by Texas’ leaders refusing to participate. “Never in the history of our country has history been written by people who lack courage or who use the veil of indecision and wait and see,” said Nichols. “There’s never been change from that attitude.”

Mary Suhm
Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm

So about that fracking fight in Dallas … Things just got real.

This morning a letter surfaced revealing a secret deal between Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm and natural gas producer Trinity East. In the letter, Suhm essentially agrees to help Trinity drill on city parkland, writing that her staff was “reasonably confident” that the company would get permission to drill. Around the same time, however, Suhm was telling Dallas City Council that Trinity wouldn’t be allowed to do so. The letter is dated August 15, 2008—two months after the park board had prohibited drilling in city parks and five days before the City Council passed a resolution banning the same thing.

The side-deal, first reported by the Dallas Observer, comes as a shock to many in Dallas. Many had assumed that the main issues were out in the open—whether City Council would revise the drilling ordinance to allow drilling on parkland, whether Trinity would eventually be granted a permit. Suhm’s private dealings with Trinity complicate the debate over the possibility of fracking in Dallas.

“I think Mary Suhm absolutely and completely overstepped her role and responsibility in circumventing the Council because the side agreement with Trinity East was never brought before the Council,” Council Member Angela Hunt told the Texas Observer. “It’s frustrating to me that Mary Suhm would tell the council repeatedly there won’t be drilling on parkland while she knows that she’s drafting a side agreement which says just the opposite.”

Hunt, who is an attorney, asked the city manager’s office for documents relating to Trinity’s lease on Monday. She says a Dallas Observer Q&A with a Trinity executive had tipped her off as to some “promises made by city staff” and she wanted to look at the legal documents herself before the City Plan Commission took the permits up again Thursday afternoon. (In the hubbub over the side-deal, the commission delayed a decision until March 21.)

Suhm told the Dallas Morning News today that she had done nothing untoward.

“To characterize the sequence of events related to the gas drilling lease agreements as a ‘back room deal’ is inflammatory and inaccurate,” Suhm wrote in an e-mail this afternoon. “The letter is NOT a deal between staff and Trinity East Energy, LLC. In fact, the City Manager could not make such a ‘deal’—that is not the City Manager’s authority.”

She went on, “The letter simply states that staff would follow normal procedure in bringing a policy issue forward to the City Council regardless of staff’s recommendations for the Council to consider. The letter further states that Trinity understands that the letter is not a binding agreement, but is merely a good faith representation of discussions.”

Hunt agrees that Suhm had no authority to make that agreement or to bind the council in any way.

“Trinity East has really smart representatives and they would have everyone believe that this is the smoking gun that grants them their permits,” Hunt says. “They are legally absolutely mistaken on that.”

Rather, she says, it’s a smoking gun that proves Suhm misrepresented the facts to the Council and brokered a deal to bolster the city budget—she included the $19 million from Trinity’s lease in the city budget before the lease had even been signed.

There should be consequences for Suhm, Hunt says, because she kept this deal not only from the public, but from city government as well.

Jim Schermbeck of North Dallas environmental group Downwinders at Risk spares no words. “They should fire Mary Suhm’s ass,” he says. “If we could take down both gas leases and her at the same time that would make my year.”

Workers’ Group Urges Reform of Austin’s Incentive-Giving System

Developer Behind Downtown Marriott Violates City Contract, Fails to Pay Workers Living Wage
Workers Defense Project Business Liaison Greg Casar urges reform of Austin's incentive-giving system in front of the JW Marriott construction site in downtown Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
Greg Casar of Workers Defense Project urges reform of Austin's incentive-giving system in front of the JW Marriott construction site in downtown Austin.

In recent years, Austin has become a generous incentive-giver to corporations – but not all companies keep up their end of the deal. On Wednesday the labor advocacy group Workers Defense Project released documents it says prove that an Indiana-based hotel developer violated a $3.8 million incentive deal with the city by failing to pay workers a prevailing wage during construction of a 34-story Marriott hotel in downtown Austin.

In 2009 the city gave White Lodging $3.8 million in tax incentives. In early fall of 2012, the Electrical Workers Union tipped off the city about White Lodging’s noncompliance. Workers Defense, which represents workers in wage theft cases, also got involved.

During a press conference Wednesday, across from the Marriott construction site, Workers Defense highlighted an email in which one of the hotel’s two general contractors, Hardin Construction, tells a subcontractor “…there is no prevailing wage scale for this project.” The organization released the email along with the city’s June 2009 agreement, which grants White Lodging the incentives, but stipulates that the company must pay a prevailing wage to claim the waivers.

Workers Defense also released an affidavit signed by a carpenter who said he was paid $12 per hour instead of the prevailing wage of $13.25 per hour at the work site.

The organization said the time is ripe for reforming the city’s incentive-giving system. Labor advocates don’t just want the Marriott to make good, they also want the city to write stricter enforcement policies and consequences into its active and future contracts with companies receiving any public money or waivers.

Susan Moffat of Liveable City, who also participated in the press conference, said it shouldn’t be up to the workers to monitor the city’s deals with companies, but that city staff should be proactive in enforcing contracts. “Liveable City is deeply troubled by the apparent lack of supervision for a contract involving nearly $4 million in public revenue,” she said. “If we as a city continue to forgo substantial amounts of public revenue to benefit private corporations as in this case, the least we can do is ensure the other party is living up to its end of the contract.”

Since 2007, Austin has offered 11 companies incentive deals, which will total $73 million, according to Austin’s 2012 annual report on economic growth incentives.

In a memo on Jan. 11 the city announced it plans to audit the company’s downtown Marriott project. White Lodging’s noncompliance with the tax incentive conditions would result in the company having to reimburse the city for any waived fees it’s already claimed, according to the memo, and forfeit the rest of the incentive money. The memo also says the city will continue to monitor the site to ensure compliance as the project progresses.

White Lodging released a statement saying it is committed to its contract with the city and is working “to comply with the conditions of the fee waivers.”

“We are also committed to achieving the goals related to the prevailing wage issue,” the statement says. “Not only are we adhering to the agreement, we are exceeding the prevailing wage targets average by at least 15%.”

Gregorio Casar, business liaison for Workers Defense, said it’s important that companies honor their agreements with city officials. “If we’re going to be giving millions and millions out in tax breaks to companies it better be for a good reason that brings exceptional community benefits to Austinites.”

To Frack or Not to Frack in Dallas

Commission to Vote on Natural Gas Drilling in City.
gas pad
Staci Semrad
A Chesapeake Energy contractor drills for natural gas northeast of Cleburne.

After years of opponents and industry arguing, waiting and waiting some more, Dallas’ fracking future might finally come to a vote. In early February a city commission is expected to vote, yet again, on whether to grant Fort Worth-based Trinity East Energy permits to drill on city-owned land. It would be the first gas well sunk within city limits and would affirm Dallas’ stance on the controversial practice of fracking.

Trinity signed a $19 million lease with the city in 2008 and applied to use the land to drill in early 2011. The city of Dallas has been reluctant to issue any drilling permits without first updating its gas drilling ordinance like other nearby cities have done, to accommodate public concerns over noise, air pollution and property setbacks. As a result, Trinity’s permits have been on hold and the issue has been languishing for what all sides agree is far too long.

On Feb. 7, the City Plan Commission is scheduled to vote on permits that would allow Trinity to drill on two city-owned sites and one private tract.

Another company, XTO Energy, has withdrawn its application. The industry says the city will be sending an anti-business message if it rejects Trinity’s applications after taking its money. Activists and some residents maintain that the potential economic benefits of fracking aren’t worth the air and noise pollution that accompany it. They point to reports from citizens in the Barnett Shale that carcinogenic chemicals, such as benzene, are making them sick. Activists have held out hope that Dallas might take a high-profile stand against urban drilling in a state that has a notoriously laissez-faire attitude toward oil and gas production. The February vote could decide whether Dallas remains frack-free or finally welcomes the fracking frenzy.

So far city government has been putting the decision off, much to the dismay of both industry and environmental activists. In 2011 the city created a gas drilling task force to study natural gas drilling issues and make recommendations on revising the ordinance. The task force handed in its recommendations last March, yet the City Council has remained mute on the matter. The City Plan Commission, a zoning board twice tasked with making a decision on the permits, has twice rejected them, largely on the premise that it has no ordinance to guide it.

“I think the process has been so lengthy and time-consuming and expensive that likely operators have gotten the message that they’re not welcome and they’ll probably go to other places that welcome it,” says Dallas Cothrum, a consultant who is representing Trinity in zoning matters. Dallas, Cothrum says, should be open for drilling, especially in remote locations. Trinity’s sites are sandwiched between a golf course and a landfill-turned-athletic-complex in North Dallas.

But Trinity’s sites present a problem: the land the company intends to drill on is in the Trinity River floodplain and is considered city parkland. The current gas drilling ordinance in Dallas prohibits drilling in both floodplains and city parks. So it seems the city is in a bit of a pickle – either grant Trinity the permits, then rewrite the ordinance to allow drilling in floodplains and city parkland, or reject the permits and possibly invite legal action. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says the city wants to avoid a lawsuit.

Trinity’s opponents also claim the city was deceptive about the extent of the company’s plans. They say they were surprised to learn, late in the process, that Trinity had applied to build an on-site natural gas processing facility in addition to the gas wells. The company had filed for a separate permit for the processing plant, but fracking activists say that the facility was never discussed at public hearings.

Cothrum says the company wasn’t trying to pull one over on the city.

“If it’s a trick, this is the slowest-moving trick play ever,” he says.

One thing the opposing sides agree on: City Council needs to stop dragging its feet.

“The City Council is going out of its way to avoid making a tough decision and they’re making the Plan Commission have to bite the bullet,” says Jim Schermbeck, executive director of Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas environmental group. “It’s a serious lack of leadership on their part not to have already dealt with this.”

Larry Swearingen
Alex Hannaford
Larry Swearingen

On December 13th, an email popped into my inbox from Wiebke Swearingen, a German woman living in Texas. She wrote: “We expect a new date to be set for the very beginning of February. Court ruling is attached.”

The date she was referring to was for her husband’s execution, later set by a judge for February 27th.

I met Larry Swearingen one morning in early November at the Polunsky Unit in the east Texas town of Livingston. He had been on death row since 2000, convicted of the 1998 murder of a 19-year-old woman called Melissa Trotter. But the subsequent story I wrote for The Texas Observer described how a number of forensic experts took the stand at a hearing to explain how forensic evidence showed it was impossible for Swearingen to have been her killer.

In a fascinating development, these scientists claimed that judging by the lack of decomposition Melissa Trotter’s body had suffered when it was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest in January 1999, they were certain that Swearingen was in fact already in jail on outstanding traffic warrants at the time of her death.

I wrote then that Swearingen would remain on death row until the Court of Criminal Appeals made its decision. In a follow-up email that his wife, Wiebke, sent me in January, she wrote: “As you most likely know, Larry has been given a new execution date for February 27, 2013.”

His case has been taken on by the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. And in a motion filed today, the group’s lawyers have asked District Judge Kelly Case to allow post-conviction DNA testing in order to prove Swearingen’s innocence.

The motion says that evidence likely to contain biological material collected during the police investigation into the murder includes fingernail scrapings from Trotter’s hands, items of her torn clothing, a ligature used to strangle her and torn pantyhose found near Swearingen’s house. Before the trial, the motion states, the state tested the fingernail scrapings, which yielded male DNA that did not match Swearingen’s. “The rest of the evidence … has never been subjected to DNA testing despite Mr. Swearingen’s repeated requests, but it is still in the State’s possession,” papers submitted to the court note. DNA testing of this evidence, it says, “can both exonerate Mr. Swearingen and identify the actual murderer of Ms. Trotter.”

The Innocence Project wants to run the DNA through the national CODIS database, a repository of DNA profiles from convicted offenders and unsolved crime scene evidence.

February 27th is Swearingen’s fourth execution date. Three times before he has received stays after his attorneys asked the courts to hear evidence that they said pointed to his innocence.

The Innocence Project says that 18 people have been exonerated by DNA testing in the U.S. after serving time on death row. If his lawyers are successful, Swearingen could become the 19th.

Monica Sanchez
Jen Reel
Monica Sanchez

On December 5, nearly one year after she last saw her, Monica Sanchez was reunited with her 3-year-old daughter last week. The wait had been long and stressful – she hadn’t heard Sarahi’s voice or even seen a picture of her in 11 months – but she finally held her in her arms again.

In the August story Taken, I wrote about the struggles of two mothers whose children had been victims of international parental child abduction – a problem that plagues Texas more than almost any other state because of the border it shares with Mexico.

Sarahi’s father, Armando Muñoz Garcia, kidnapped his daughter in January and illegally took her to Mexico, where they lived in a small town in the state of Mexico. A family law judge ruled in May that Sarahi be returned to Texas for a custody hearing, but Garcia appealed the decision twice – first at the state, then at the federal level – before a federal judge reaffirmed the family law judge’s initial ruling.

A little more than a month later, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney, Mariano Nuñez, was able to pick Sarahi up in Mexico and bring her back to her mother in San Marcos. Sanchez says Sarahi is doing well and is happy to be home and to meet her new baby brother, but she will be going to therapy to deal with the trauma children face when they are abducted. Like many children who are abducted by a parent, Sarahi initially feared she’d be kidnapped again, this time by her mother, when she first saw her again.

Though Sanchez did not see her daughter for nearly a year, the case was resolved quickly compared to most international parental abduction cases, which can drag on for years. Rebecca Montalvo, who we also profiled in our August story, hasn’t seen the same success as Sanchez. A judge in Mexico recently denied her request to have her son returned to Texas, but she is appealing the decision.

Workers Defense Project Press Conference 12/11/12
Priscila Mosqueda
Workers Defense Project's Greg Casar presents Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo with a "Champion for Working Families" award.

In a small celebration at the Workers Defense Project office on Tuesday, the labor advocacy group presented awards—wooden lightboxes with small hammers inside—to Austin and Travis County officials who have helped institute a living wage floor for certain workers.

After years of advocating fair compensation, labor leaders saw a victory last month when the Travis County Commissioner’s Court approved a requirement that all companies receiving county tax incentives pay workers at least $11 per hour—$3.75 more than the federal minimum wage. A special subcommittee of the Austin City Council made a similar recommendation last month. Members who voted for the wage floor were honored at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt was the first to receive an award—handcrafted by Workers Defense employees and members—for leading Travis County’s implementation of the wage floor. Next were Austin City Council members Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison and Mike Martinez.

Labor leaders, including Workers Defense and Austin Interfaith, have been trying to get a living wage floor passed in Austin for years. Progress had been slow as critics argued that requiring companies to pay workers more would stifle economic growth.

“My response to that is: unfortunately this policy only applies to a miniscule number of construction projects within this county,” Eckhardt said. “And the idea that we would not be competitive by applying an absolutely justifiable—and frankly too low—wage floor to some of the most dangerous work in Travis County is a fairly outrageous position.”

The county agreed to tie the wage floor to the minimum wage for county employees, which is $11 per hour. The City of Austin uses the same standard. Greg Casar of Workers Defense said advocates originally wanted a $12-an-hour minimum, but it made sense to tie the construction wage floor to the county and city’s, so the pay floor can rise automatically with inflation. For now, the wage floor only applies to construction jobs (including contract work) for projects with local tax incentives, and the county doesn’t give nearly as much money in tax incentives as the city does, not to mention the state.

Texas leads the country in economic incentives given to new companies, with about $19.1 billion, or 51 cents per dollar of the state budget, going toward incentive programs each year, according to a New York Times investigation. (That figure is disputed.) Gov. Rick Perry has encouraged local incentives to recruit companies into Texas to help drive the state’s economic growth. But in 2011, Texas ranked 10th in terms of percentage of people living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data and the American Community Survey.

Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún says many of the jobs brought to the state are minimum wage and leave breadwinners ill equipped to support their families.

“We know Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and with that growth comes additional responsibilities and also opportunities,” Tzintzún said. “The city has had a unique opportunity to ensure shared prosperity and equal protection for those who are building our growing city.”

Tzintzún said Texas is the most deadly place for construction workers in the country, referencing a 2010 report that found a construction worker dies every two and a half days in the state. She also said nearly half the construction workforce in Texas lives below the poverty line, citing a study the organization plans to release in early 2013. In highly unionized states like New York, California, Illinois and Ohio, she said, construction jobs can support middle-class families.

Several developers and tech companies that have come to Austin have already agreed to some kind of wage floor and/or other terms presented by Workers Defense. Workers Defense Project and their supporters lobbied the City Council to require HID Global, Trammell Crow Co. and Apple to institute wage floors for construction workers, guarantee safe working conditions and commit to hiring a percentage of disadvantaged Austin residents graduating from construction training programs. Apple agreed to a $12 per hour wage floor for workers building its 38-acre campus in north Austin, and Visa recently volunteered an $11 per hour wage floor for all jobs tied to its center, including those needed to refit the building it will occupy. Workers Defense is still negotiating with HID Global.

Opponents, including the Austin Chamber of Commerce, have said they will continue to fight the wage floor. Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell also opposes it and was the lone dissenter in the subcommittee recommendation to institute a wage floor at the city level for projects receiving incentives, arguing it will drive companies away from Austin. The subcommittee’s recommendation will go before the City Council next month.

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