Last weekend, construction worker Jose Perez stood up and spoke about life as a construction worker in one of then nation’s most prosperous cities. In front of him were hundreds of supporters who had gathered in downtown Austin, Texas, to call on a local developer to treat its workers better. Looming behind him was the new Gables Park Tower, an unfinished luxury apartment complex where construction workers have reported dangerous working conditions and frequent wage violations.
Austin’s Workers Defense Project, a worker-led nonprofit that helps low-income workers fight for better working conditions and recoup stolen wages, organized the Feb. 15 event, which also marked the launch of the project’s biggest campaign to date. The campaign is calling on Gables Residential, a prominent developer in Texas worth billions of dollars, to do its part in creating safer and fairer working conditions for construction workers as well as join the project’s Better Builder program. Better Builder employers commit to paying construction workers a living wage, providing safe and legal working conditions, hiring from local training schools and allowing monitors on the work site (click here to read our previous coverage about the program).
The Feb. 15 event, which included construction workers and their families, local union members, members of the faith community and student activists, is a perfect example of the Workers Defense Project in action. In a state home to the nation’s worst construction worker fatality rate, where employers aren’t required to carry worker’s compensation insurance and where workers often risk their lives for poverty wages, the Workers Defense Project is making real progress in leveling the playing field between vulnerable workers and billion-dollar developers. In fact, just days before the hundreds of Austin workers and residents gathered to publicly protest Gables’ unsafe working conditions, the company finally agreed to sit down with Workers Defense Project for an initial discussion. After numerous attempts to reach out to Gables in the past, the company’s recent willingness to start a conversation doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
So why target Gables? Emily Timm, deputy director at Workers Defense Project, told me that in 10 years of working with local construction workers, the project has received more complaints about Gables construction sites than about sites of any other single developer. As of this week, Timm said Gables hasn’t yet made any commitments to improve conditions on their constructions sites or join the Better Builder program.
“We will continue to highlight issues on their site until they’re willing to partner with us and adhere to basic standards for workers and fair pay for workers,” Timm said. “Gables does a significant amount of work in Texas and in Austin, and we see this as an opportunity to work with them.”
Back at the Feb. 15 protest that took place in a grassy park in front of the unfinished Gables Park Tower, Perez, dressed in a construction hard hat and orange vest, told supporters that at first he was excited about his new job as a glazier at Gables Park Tower. But that excitement quickly faded. In Perez’s own words: “I didn’t know the conditions I would encounter. We didn’t receive rest breaks, even in the scorching summer heat. Not receiving breaks made us tired, which meant we weren’t able to do our work as well or as safely as we would have. Co-workers told me they fainted because they had no rest breaks and one cut their hand because they were so tired from not receiving a break.” He said water wasn’t provided on each floor of the building site, and every time he’d leave his post on the sixth floor to get water from the first floor, his supervisor would get angry.
Eventually, Perez filed a complaint with the city of Austin, which mandates that construction workers receive a break of at least 10 minutes for every four hours of work. After making the complaint, he said his supervisor singled him out and asked him to sign a document stating he would be fired if he was late for work or missed a day. Perez says he did not see his supervisor ask other workers to sign such a document. Perez hasn’t worked at the Gables site since last summer.
“I’m here with all my compañeros to ask for justice,” he told the cheering crowd through a translator.
Perez is only one of many workers who have voiced complaints about Gables Residential and its subcontractors. Workers at all of Gables’ downtown Austin building sites have reported serious problems, such as unsafe and illegal working conditions, 50- to 60-hour work weeks with no overtime pay, and a whopping $130,000 in unpaid wages. In fact, the day of the protest, Heriberto Mendoza, a painter at Gables Park Tower, filed a lien again Gables Residential for unpaid overtime. In Mendoza’s own words:
I work 10- to 12-hour days and have not been paid overtime. Some of my co-workers work up to 70 hours a week but are not paid overtime either. Flores (the painting company subcontractor) doesn’t give us water, which is against the law. …There have been unsafe working conditions at the site. I’ve seen the cleaning crew working on the 10th floor cleaning the balcony windows on six-foot ladders with no harnesses or safety equipment. This was happening even during the rain when it was slippery and wet outside. They could have easily fallen backwards to their deaths. I’ve worked in construction for 10 years, and I have never seen worse conditions than on Gables Park Tower.
During the protest, Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún noted that while Gables touts itself as a green builder that uses sustainable building practices, its way of doing business is hardly sustainable for workers. She called on Gables to help improve working conditions for Austin's construction workers so that they can afford to "live in the city that they helped build."
At the close of the protest, workers standing on a nearby overpass with bumper-to-bumper traffic below unfurled a large banner for all to see. It succinctly read: “Build it Better, Gables!”
To learn more about the Workers Defense Project as well as the conditions facing Texas construction workers, visit www.workersdefense.org. Also, click here to read our previous coverage of the project’s wage theft work.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.