By Kim Krisberg
Pumphandle, February 21, 2014
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.