by Kim Krisberg

It’s Tuesday evening and as usual, the small parking lot outside the Workers Defense Project on Austin’s eastside is packed. The dusty lot is strewn with cars and pick-up trucks parked wherever they can fit and get in off the road. I’ve arrived well before the night’s activities begin, so I easily secure a spot. But my gracious guide and translator, a college intern named Alan Garcia, warns me that I might get blocked in. It happens all the time, he says.

It was the first of two August evenings I’d spend observing the project in action and meeting the workers who help lead its efforts and who seek out its help. The Workers Defense Project, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary next month, is a workers center dedicated to empowering low-income workers with the education, tools and services to achieve fair employment, fair wages and safe workplaces. Its Tuesday night Workers in Action meetings happen every week and are a chance to recruit new members, educate workers on their wage and OSHA safety rights, and work on pending cases. Today, the project has 900 members, the majority of whom are Hispanic and work in low-wage jobs.

Greg Casar, the project’s business liaison, says the Tuesday meetings are the “heart, soul and foundation for all the other work we do.”

“Our direct service component is key to having trust in the community,” Casar tells me. “We have power as a community to face the problems we have here in Austin. We’re organizing to make political change and fix the structural problems that cause wage theft and injury on the job.”

Wage theft, in which employers refuse to pay workers what they’ve earned, is a problem across Texas and throughout the country. (Read more about organizations combating it in El Paso, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley.)

The project interacts with thousands of workers every year, most coming to report wage theft and most working in construction. Over the decade, the project has helped workers recover nearly $900,000 in wages they earned but were initially not paid, Casar said.

One of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, Austin is ripe for worker abuses, not only in terms of wage theft, but for safety, too. Texas is home to the nation’s highest construction worker fatality rate and is the only state that doesn’t require employers to carry workers compensation insurance. According to a Workers Defense Project report on construction conditions, construction workers in the Lone Star state earn two to three dollars less than their counterparts in other states for the same work. One in five Austin construction workers reported wage theft, 45 percent earned poverty-level wages, and one in five experienced a workplace injury that required medical help, the report found. In 2007, 142 construction workers died on Texas worksites. (To read more about the project’s successful efforts to change the construction industry, click here.)

“The layers of subcontracting have gotten so deep that it’s really not a surprise that owners of buildings know very little of what’s happening on construction sites,” Casar says. “It’s a race to the bottom — we’ve hit the bottom and now we’re going through the floor.”

Casar tells me that a large portion of the $900,000 in wages recovered have come in the last few years. That’s because not only are people more confident in coming forward, but the problem of wage theft is getting worse.

“The more empowered workers feel, the more visible wage theft becomes,” he says. “There are so many people coming in with wage theft claims…every Tuesday, we fill the whole place up.”

¡Buenas tardes compañeros!

Inside the project’s building, a big structure with a bright blue roof that’s easily spotted from the road, staff and volunteers are busy getting ready for another evening of training, educating, organizing and a little celebrating.

In a small room off to the side that doubles as the kids’ room, the Workplace Justice Committee is meeting. The walls are covered in inspirational labor rights posters; the shelves are stuffed with children’s art supplies, books and games. A project staffer is encouraging committee members to become certified in OSHA safety standards so that they can educate workers in the field on their rights, document unsafe conditions and recruit other workers to participate in the project’s OSHA safety classes.

At tonight’s meeting, the committee watches a video enactment of a typical workplace scenario for many project members. In the video, a construction site supervisor tells workers to just ignore safety rules and get the job done, threatening the worker with deportation. The worker goes to the Workers Defense Project for help, where he learns that regardless of workers’ immigration status, employers are legally required to uphold safe workplace standards. Project staff help the fictional worker fill out a report to OSHA. The video ends with a picture of the Workers Defense Project, and everyone in the room claps.

Soon, the committee members are getting their assignments for tonight’s main meeting — each will help a group of workers with their pending wage theft cases. When I leave the small meeting room and follow Garcia into the main hall, it’s starting to overflow, and volunteers are busy putting out more tables and chairs. On the walls are framed photographs of the Workers Defense Project in action. The Spanish-language music playing over the speakers is turned down as the meeting begins.

First, a worker member tells the packed room about the wage theft case that led her to join the Workers Defense Project and why they should join too. As new members are presented with their membership cards and take a pledge to fight and organize to attain justice for workers in Austin, the crowd applauds and offers cheers of encouragement.

After a few more announcements, it’s time for wage theft victories. On both Tuesday evenings I observe, women workers are presented with checks for recouped wages. They both call on the crowd to never give up, to keep moving forward — “We can’t let anyone rob us of our money,” one tells the crowd.

Before the meeting breaks to work on individual cases, the room is led in its weekly chant: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” (On my second Tuesday, the crowd is encouraged to chant loud enough for Obama to hear.)

Even as an observer who doesn’t speak Spanish, it’s easy to feel completely engulfed in the project’s mission of worker justice — it’s everywhere you look; it’s nearly tangible. Despite the very serious issues and steep uphill battles many workers face, people are optimistic and hopeful; they’re smiling and laughing. The atmosphere is a testament to the power of mobilization and education as well as the buoyancy that comes with community.

‘As a union, there’s strength’

(The following are six stories from workers who came to the project’s Tuesday night meetings as told through a translator. Some workers asked that only their first names be used.)

Agustin

Agustin was promised $20 an hour to do plumbing, electrical, tile and landscaping work. At first, things were going well. He shows me text messages from the employer praising his “beautiful work” and thanking him for his attention to detail. Soon things began to dissolve, though; the employer kept changing his mind and wasn’t paying the wages that Agustin was owed. So, Agustin decided to end the working relationship. On his last day of work on the site, Agustin asked for the money he’d earned. Instead of paying, the employer kicked him off the property.

Since spring, Agustin has been working to recover the $4,000 he’s owed. Agustin’s been working in Austin for more than a decade and it wasn’t the first time he’d experienced wage theft, but “this time I said ‘no more.’ We’re hard workers and this isn’t right.” It’s the first case he’s brought to the Workers Defense Project.

“I didn’t realize so many people had the same problem as me,” he told me through a translator. “I work long hours and when I work for someone, I like to be grateful but I expect them to be grateful in return.

“I have a family; I have bills to pay too.”

Maria Luisa Torres Espinosa

Maria smiles big when I meet her. Tonight, after three months of working with the Workers Defense Project, she finally received a check for the $165 in wages she was owed. She’d been working as a cook in an Austin restaurant, and her employer refused to pay her for two weeks of work. He said he didn’t have the money.

So she came to the project on the advice of a friend. They helped her send a demand letter to the employer, which was followed by phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Finally, the employer relented, but Maria said he refused to deliver the check to her; he’d only deliver it to staff at the project.

Maria tells me she never thought of giving up on the wages and that she plans to come back to the project to help others. She said she wants to keep the struggle going — “This isn’t right. I’m just trying to work hard, to have a job,” she says.

Casimiro

Casimiro works for an Austin landscaping company. He tells me they’ve been particularly busy lately and working extra hours. He’s come to the Tuesday night meeting not because he hasn’t been getting paid, but because he wants help to make sure he’s getting paid properly for the hours he’s working and being given a fair amount of time to complete his work assignments. He tells me his boss often gets angry and verbally abusive with him and his fellow workers.

He says he works 12-hour days and hasn’t been receiving overtime pay. He’s been a Workers Defense Project member for three months and this is his first case.

When I asked him why he joined the project, he says: “As a union, there’s strength.”

Maria Elena Flores Morales

For the past six months, Maria’s been owed $1,800 in wages she earned cleaning houses in Austin. It’s the first time she’s experienced wage theft.

She tells me her former boss is well aware of the money Maria is owed and knows that she’s working with the project to recoup the wages. Maria has already sent a demand letter, which was returned to the project, her former boss claiming the letter was never received. Maria has filed a wage theft report with local police. She tells me that her former employer purposefully seeks out Hispanic workers, especially women with children, under the assumption that they are more likely to be afraid to speak up about abuses.

Maria says she’s committed to getting her wages back no matter how long it takes. When I ask her what she would have done without the Workers Defense Project, she says “nada.” She didn’t realize she could file a police report about wage theft until she came to the project for help.

“I’m angry at the situation,” she says, but she adds that she feels calm and secure knowing she has the help of the Workers Defense Project.

Emerita

Emerita was working with an Austin cleaning crew in housing construction sites. After the construction workers were done painting or putting down carpet, Emerita and her co-workers would clean up the units. She says she worked Monday through Saturday from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, with five-minute lunch breaks. Today, Emerita is trying to recoup $1,100 in wages for 11 days of construction cleaning.

She says that when she contacted her employer about the wages, the employer said the contractor she got the job from hasn’t paid yet, so she couldn’t pay Emerita yet. But when Emerita contacted the general contractor, they said they’d already paid up with the cleaning service. Like all the other workers I talked with, Emerita says she’ll do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to recover the wages she’s earned. She tells me that with the confidence she’s gained at the Workers Defense Project, she’s optimistic she will succeed.

“This is an injustice to all workers,” she says.

Christian Hurtado

Eight years ago, Christian’s father fell to his death on an Austin construction site. On the same day of his father’s death, an OSHA supervisor told his family that the building wasn’t safe enough to be on top of and that his father didn’t have the proper safety equipment.

Today, Christian is a member of the project’s Construction Workers Committee, which works to improve state and local laws, increase safety and technical training opportunities, and advocate for a living wage. Committee members are actual construction workers who see and experience the dangers and abuses that happen on construction sites first hand.

Christian said he used to work in construction, but he found other work after his father’s death. As a member of the committee, he helps organize workers, document unsafe work conditions and gather worker stories.

“Things are going to change,” he tells me. “It’s going to take time, but we’re going to make it happen.”

To learn more about the Workers Defense Project, visit www.workersdefense.org.

A special thank you to Alan Garcia, who provided translation during my two nights at the Workers Defense Project.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for the last decade.

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