Workers Defense Project Demands Tech Company Provide Fair Compensation, Treatment for Austin Workers

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Photo courtesy of Workers Defense Project.

As the state offers yet another tax incentive to woo yet another tech company to Austin, Workers Defense Project is stepping in to ensure that workers building the physical shell for HID Global are treated and compensated fairly.

In light of rampant wage theft in Texas and the 2009 study that found every two and a half days a construction worker dies in Texas, Workers Defense is stepping up its efforts to protect workers on construction sites through the Premier Community Builders program.

Workers Defense Project is demanding that Austin City Council add three conditions to their contract with HID Global before approving the building of their complex in north Austin: the presence of a safety monitor on site once per pay period; a wage floor of $12 per hour; and a commitment to hiring disadvantaged Austin residents with construction certifications for 15 percent of the jobs. The city council is set to vote on the proposal when it takes up the $2.8 million incentive package on Sept. 27.

Workers Defense seeks similar conditions for all major construction projects in Austin, particularly ones where the city or state is offering incentives. It recently succeeded in getting the city to require Trammell Crow Co., the company building a mix-use development downtown, to hire 20 percent of workers from construction certification programs that train disadvantaged residents and pay them $16 per hour. Trammell Crow also agreed to safety monitoring by a Workers Defense representative.

In March, the organization secured a $12 per hour wage floor as well as safety monitoring for the 38-acre Apple campus to be built in northwest Austin. Gregorio Casar, business liaison for Workers Defense Project, says they are still talking to Apple about ensuring a percentage of the workers come out of construction certification programs that offer training to disadvantaged residents.

“We campaigned with City Hall to say, ‘If we’re going to invest $9 million in Apple, then we want to see an investment back into working-class people,’” Casar says, referring to the $8.6 million incentive Austin gave Apple in addition to the $21 million from the state.

Casar says while Apple and others have promised many jobs to people in the tech industry, working-class laborers should benefit from the generous financial incentives as well. But he says the Premier Builders Program doesn’t just benefit the workers. Through a partnership with Austin Energy Green Building, projects that are certified by the Premier Community Builders program earn a point on their Green Building rating.

“Normally they might be resistant to pay more to protect workers because it might cost them more money, but if consumers demand this they could actually see it as a benefit to themselves,” Casar says. He compares their program to stores that choose to sell fair trade products – the company can market themselves as caring about larger socioeconomic issues while consumers agree to spend more to support a good cause.

The amount of “construction families” of four living off less than $11,500/year in Austin more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data and the 2005 American Community Survey. In the same period, the number of families of four living off more than $46,000 decreased 25 percent.

While Workers Defense has focused on workers’ rights, education and organizing low-wage workers in Austin, the Premier Community Builders program emphasizes finding low-income residents who have not had the opportunity to work on safe and well-paying construction projects, train them, and then put them to work on large projects with good conditions, like they hope HID will be.

As of Thursday afternoon, Casar said he estimated the organization and its members had sent about 100 comments to the city council via their online comment system in preparation for the Sept. 27 vote.

 

(Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly said a construction worker dies every two and a half days in Austin. The study found that a construction worker dies every two and a half days in Texas. The story has been amended to reflect this change. The Observer regrets the error.)

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.