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Aug
2013
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New York Times Highlights Vital Role the Workers Defense Project Has Played in Texas and Beyond

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An article from this weekend’s New York Times sheds light on the history of the Workers Defense Project, a group that came together and envisioned a future in which worker centers play a role in the labor movement.  The success level enjoyed by the Workers Defense Center, based in Austin, Texas, is relatively unmatched and the culture surrounding its meetings are equated to those held by unions at the height of the power.  

As we have reported before, the Workers Defense Project has been the driving force behind Texas Republicans’ shifts on certain worker issues. Unexpectedly, the state made wage theft a true criminal act, granted legal water and rest breaks for Texas workers, and delivered over $1 million in back pay in the past decade.  The Workers Defense Project is a model of how workers can come together to demand change in “Right-to-Work” states.  

Jefferson Cowie, a labor historian at Cornell, told NYT, “Worker centers are part of the broad scramble of how to improve things for workers outside the traditional union/collective bargaining context. They’ve become little laboratories of experimentation.”

For immigrant workers, such centers are becoming increasingly important.  Exploitation with little discourse is the norm for the undocumented.  The worker center culture counters this, as described by the NYT:

At a recent Workers Defense Project meeting — they are held every Tuesday night — the atmosphere was part pep rally, part educational session, part social hour. After a dinner of tacos, rice and beans, about 60 workers plotted strategy for a demonstration against the developer of a 1,000-room Marriott hotel. A skit mocking the developer drew raucous laughter. The energy and sense of solidarity were reminiscent of what America’s labor unions had many decades ago, before they started to stumble and stagnate.

In other words, worker centers are reaching out to those who need the most help organizing. Legislative efforts to limit the power of unions to organize make alternative approaches ever necessary. While they were not originally allies, unions and the Workers Defense Project are now partnering to help change the overall landscape of Texas construction. Michael Cunningham, executive director of the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, explains the shift:

“If you had asked me a few years ago, would we be working with a group of nonunion workers to help them better their lives, we’d ask, why would we help people that are taking our jobs?  Well, the fact is they already have our jobs.

“By working together,” he continued, “we’re trying to drive out low-road contractors that are driving down wages.”

In 2013, unions are looking to reach out to the immigrant community to organize the next wave low-wage workers.  Anna Fink, a liaison between the AFL-CIO and foundations that help finance worker centers, told the NYT:

“There’s a need to experiment with new ways to reach workers who haven’t been reached by unions.  The labor movement doesn’t have the deep trust that worker centers have built with immigrant worker communities.”

With unions on board and a resume of success, the Workers Defense Project is fighting for workers in ways unimaginable during similar centers’ humbler beginnings.  Pressuring the GOP to enact pro-worker legislation, changing the culture of the Texas construction industry, and going to the mat with Apple to ensure fair wages on a recent project are no small feats.

As soon as word got out in March 2012 that Apple was planning to build a $300 million operations center in Austin, the Workers Defense Project sprang into action. Gregorio Casar, the group’s business liaison — his title might more fittingly be thorn-in-the-side — learned that Apple hoped to receive tax incentives in exchange for promising to create 3,600 full-time jobs with salaries averaging at least $63,000.

But Mr. Casar, a University of Virginia graduate who is the son of Mexican immigrants, assumed that Apple’s construction contractors would pay much less than that. The typical wage for nonunion construction laborers in Texas is just $10 an hour — about $20,000 a year.

Relying on relationships that the Workers Defense Project had built over the years, Mr. Casar, 24, persuaded the Austin City Council to require Apple to hold talks with the group as a condition for $8.6 million in city tax incentives….

…In these discussions, Mr. Casar demanded that Apple’s construction contractors pay at least $12 an hour, provide safety training and workers’ compensation, and allow the group’s representatives to go to the site to inspect working conditions.

“Like many companies, Apple resisted at first because they wanted total flexibility,” Mr. Casar said.

So the group turned up the heat. On March 22, just before the council’s hearing on Apple’s tax incentives, 100 protesters demonstrated outside City Hall. Inside the council chambers, Jose Nieto, a demolition worker affiliated with the Workers Defense Project, testified about how he had once nearly bled to death when a large mirror he was removing from a hotel wall broke and sliced into his arm. His hospital bill, which included multiple operations, was more than $80,000. He had no workers’ compensation to pay for the operations or support his family.

Mr. Nieto implored the council not to grant Apple the tax incentives unless it accepted the Workers Defense Project’s demands. “It is in your power to prevent things like this from happening to other people,” he told the council.

Apple agreed and, again, the persistence of the Workers Defense Project provided a victory for Texas construction workers. In so doing, they helped cement precedent for similar worker centers nationwide.

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