Those who help to build a city should be able to share in its prosperity, but too often construction workers don’t share in the booming local economies they help to create. Dangerous working conditions, limited-to-no health and safety training, and poverty-level wages put construction workers in a precarious position as some of the most vulnerable members of our labor force.
That’s why construction workers in Austin, Texas, are coming together not just to build a better Austin skyline, but to build better lives for themselves. They’ve created the Better Builder Program, part of the Workers Defense Project, which seeks to incentivize developers to pledge to meet higher wage and safety standards for construction workers who do the important work of building the city’s future.
Through the Better Builder Program, the Workers Defense Project helps developers, community organizations and public entities be sure that when they fund construction projects they are using contractors who understand the value of setting higher standards for their projects beyond minimum legal requirements.
The contractors who participate in the program promise to pay a living wage, provide workers’ compensation and OSHA safety training, hire local apprentices and invest in monitoring to ensure accountability. By committing to using only contractors who make these promises, developers and public institutions can make their investments in their communities yield more than just shiny new buildings – they can also invest in creating good jobs for the people in their communities.
Cesar Olalde is part of the Better Builder Program. A married father of four who works mostly as a painter on construction projects in Austin, Cesar has worked for several different construction contractors since moving to the United States 15 years ago. Cesar has seen serious challenges on the job like unsafe working conditions and he has been a victim of wage theft.
But Cesar’s recent job helping build Apple’s Riata Vista campus development was different. For this project, Apple and the contractor worked with the Workers Defense Project to meet Better Builder standards, including dedicating time and money to making sure working conditions are safe, legal and humane.
“There is a vast difference between small contractors and companies under Better Builder,” Cesar says. Under Better Builder agreements, companies can’t cut corners just to get a job done faster because they “must be primarily concerned for the workers and their safety.”
In October 2015, workers like Cesar and groups like the Workers Defense Project shared their story at the White House Summit on Worker Voice, and they have inspired other workers to think about how they can use their voices to build a better future. A growing number of employers, consumers and local leaders are also coming to understand that worker voice is a key ingredient to strengthen our communities and grow our economy.
Earlier this year, Travis County (which includes Austin) voted to require Better Builder standards for infrastructure construction – like roads, sidewalks, and landscaping – in future public improvement districts. Travis County has already received multiple petitions from residents who have voted to require these higher standards in their communities.
The Workers Defense Project is one example of how workers who have a voice can win victories and share in the prosperity they help to build. Since the October 2015 summit at the White House, the Labor Department has heard from workers in all industries about how they are organizing to improve their lives and protections on the job at regional worker voice summits in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York City and the District of Columbia.
Share your worker voice story with us, and join the conversation online using #StartTheConvo to say why #WorkerVoice is important to you.
Sharon Block is the senior counselor to the secretary of labor and principal deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Labor Department.