Every 2.5 Days, a Construction Worker Dies in Texas; and What Two Groups Are Doing About It

Cristina Tzintzun, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, and Michael Cunningham, executive director and secretary/treasurer of the Texas State Building and Construction Trades Council, send us this.

Few construction labor leaders have ever thought of Texas as an easy place to organize. The state legislature is controlled by a super majority of Republicans who are sternly anti-immigrant and anti-worker. Construction business interests have a firm grip on the legislature. The biggest Republican donor in the state is Bob Perry, of Perry Homes, one of the largest home builders in Texas. That is why the efforts of unions and community groups to reform the construction industry in the state are so significant.

Construction work in Texas is predominately low-wage work (45 percent of full-time workers live below the poverty line). Texas is the most deadly place for construction workers in the country, with a worker dying every 2.5 days, and it is estimated that 60 percent of the workforce is Latino.

Since 2008, Workers Defense Project (WDP), a non-profit organization primarily comprised of low-wage Latino construction workers, and the Texas State Building and Construction Trades Council have been working together to improve conditions in the industry. Together they have developed a smart model for labor and community collaboration.

Our Story and How We Built Worker Power
We teamed up to build a broad labor movement capable of changing business as usual in Texas, for union and nonunion workers in the construction industry. We have brought Latino, white and African American construction workers together from across Texas to call for better jobs and safer working conditions.

One summer we collected 142 pairs of work boots representing the construction workers who died on the job in Texas that year. Immigrant and non-immigrant workers went without water in the summer heat to win rest breaks and water for construction workers, and last year, hundreds of us marched to the state Capitol with caskets in memory of all the construction workers who have died building our state.

By working together we have been able to win important victories, including:

A federal investigation into Texas’ deadly construction industry by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), after WDP released a study about working conditions in the industry in our state. The study found that every 2.5 days a construction worker dies in Texas. Under the initiative, OSHA conducted nearly 900 inspections throughout the state, resulting in close to 1,500 citations and fines totaling almost $2 million.
Paid rest breaks for Austin’s 50,000 construction workers—the first of its kind in Texas.
A statewide wage theft law. This bill makes it easier for police departments across Texas to arrest employers who don’t pay their workers.
Changes in city contracts to require basic safety trainings for all construction workers on city-funded sites.
Next, we plan on improving prevailing wage enforcement in Austin, where the city does not collect fines when employers don’t pay the prevailing wage. In 2013, we also will take on the state legislator to win safer working conditions for Texas construction workers. We know our work is challenging in a place like Texas, but we have learned that when we work together, we are capable of raising standards in the industry. Together, we are building a labor movement that we can all be proud of.

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