“We made history last night,” read a message from Austin’s Workers Defense Project (WDP) to its supporters the day after the Austin City Council voted to require the developer of a large downtown tract to work with WDP to ensure that the project’s contractors pay fair wages, don’t commit wage theft, provide training opportunities and follow safe construction work practices. The vote came after five hours of testimony by construction workers about poor working conditions on many Austin construction sites.
Before the testimonies began, about 150 workers and their supporters marched and rallied outside and inside City Hall. “We’re here to make sure these jobs are good jobs that pay a living wage,” said WDP member Christian Hurtado in Spanish as the workers and the supporters rallied outside City Hall. “We’re here to make sure that all the jobs on this project are safe jobs.”
The project Hurtado was talking about is the redevelopment of a city-owned property where the former Green Water Treatment Plant was located. Trammell Crow, one of the largest real estate developers and investors in the US, has proposed buying the property and building apartments, hotels, and office space worth $500 million.
WDP, which organizes low-paid construction workers, many of whom are immigrant workers, had asked the city to require Trammell Crow to negotiate a Premier Community Builders agreement with WDP to ensure that jobs on this project paid a fair wage, were safe, and provided training that could lead to better paying jobs. The City Council had made a similar requirement of Apple as a condition for receiving city financial incentives for a facility it was building.
But Trammell Crow balked at the requirement. It told city staff that it would pay the prevailing wage and require contractors to follow safety laws and ordinances, but wouldn’t negotiate an agreement that would ensure that these promises were carried out. The City Council appeared to be willing to take the developer’s word.
But without an enforcement mechanism like the ones in WDP’s other Premier Community Builders agreements, it’s easy for contractors to ignore existing laws and ordinances. That’s what Juan Bueno, a WDP member said at the rally. ”I visited construction sites last summer and talked to workers,” Bueno said. “Most of them never got a water break even though there’s a city ordinance requiring regular water breaks. That’s why I think Trammell Crow must work with WDP and make sure all workers are treated fairly.”
If workers weren’t getting water breaks during an Austin summer that had 85 days when the temperature reached 100 degrees or higher, it’s a sure bet that other safety laws and regulations were being violated.
The same holds true for Trammell Crow’s promise to make contractors pay the prevailing wage. “Prevailing wage laws don’t protect the lowest paid construction workers, who work on the most dangerous jobs,” said Christina Tzintzun, WDP’s executive director. “It’s not unusual for these workers to be paid as little as $7.50 an hour. The prevailing wage law doesn’t lift the wage floor for low-paid workers.”
Tzintzun urged workers at the rally to go into City Hall and express their anger about the possibility that the city would not hold Trammell Crow accountable. The crowd from the rally entered City Hall and many signed up to testify.
Before entering the council chamber, the workers gathered in the lobby for one last speech. “They’ve taken back their word,” said Reverend Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. “But we’re here to tell them that Austin’s not for sale. No decent builder makes money off another person’s blood. No decent developer gets rich off another person’s poverty. Our message tonight will be that we’re not going down without a fight.”
At 2:00 A.M. after hours of testimony, the council voted unanimously to support a motion by council member Laura Morrison requiring Trammell Crow to work with WDP to set up a worker welfare monitoring program and aim to hire 20 percent of the project’s construction workforce from bilingual technical schools, which will provide opportunities for low-wage workers to move up to good paying jobs.
In addition to the workers, representatives from religious, labor, environmental, and students were on hand to support the construction workers demand for fair wages and safe jobs.