The Austin City Council two weeks ago took a small step toward improving workplace justice when it amended an $8 million incentive deal with Apple requiring the company to negotiate with the Workers Defense Project an agreement that ensures safety, fair wages, and training opportunities for workers who build Apple’s new facility in North Austin.
The council’s decision was the result of a grassroots lobbying effort on the part of low-paid construction workers organized by the Workers Defense Project (WDP). Most of WDP’s members are immigrant workers, whose first language is Spanish.
“Prior to the City Council meeting, workers met with council members to make sure they were aware of and understood the research that shows how dangerous construction work in Austin is,” said Greg Casar, business liaison with WDP. “They also told their own stories about low wages, dangerous work, and wage theft on construction jobs in the city.”
Casar said that the Apple vote was actually two years in the making. In 2010, WDP members convinced City Council to pass an ordinance requiring contractors to give workers paid water breaks (Unlike some states, Texas has no laws requiring employers to give rest breaks to workers). Prior to the vote, WDP members conducted a “thirst strike” in front of City Hall to dramatize the unsafe conditions that many construction workers endure in a city where summer temperatures can rise well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
WDP members backed up their claims about the lack of safety on the jobs with the results of a study completed in 2009 entitled Building Austin, Building Injustice authored by WDP and University of Texas at Austin researchers.
The study finds that Texas is a dangerous place for construction workers. In the two years prior to the study, 142 construction workers died on the job–that’s one death every 2.5 days.
Austin construction work is no exception. The report includes the results of a survey of more than 300 Austin workers. It finds that 21 percent reported serious on-the-job injuries; 45 percent said that they weren’t covered by workers’ compensation; 27 percent said that their bosses provided no water or rest breaks; and 29 percent said that they provided their own safety equipment. Workers also reported that there was little if any safety training.
Casar said that in addition to safety concerns WDP receives daily calls from construction workers and other low-paid workers about wage theft, low pay, and other job issues. Another problem with local construction jobs is that they are precarious, temporary, and provide few opportunities for training that can lead to learning new skills and more permanent employment.
The council’s most recent decision to require Apple to negotiate an agreement with WDP was directly related to the work that WDP members have done over the last two years to expose poor working conditions at some Austin construction sites.
The agreement, known as a Premier Community Builder Agreement, will address these problems by establishing standards for a fair wage, safety, and skill training to which all contractors on the Apple project must adhere.
The agreement will also establish a mechanism for monitoring implementation of the agreement by allowing a workers’ advocate to visit the construction site and speak directly with workers about how well the agreement is being implemented.
WDP already has two Premier Community Builder Agreements in force. One is with Foundation Communities, which is building an affordable South Austin apartment building for low-income workers. The other is with Maxum Development of Dallas. Maxum signed its agreement two years after three workers died due to contractor negligence on one of the developer’s Austin projects. A Maxum spokesperson said that the agreement was designed to make the projects “flow better” and improve worker safety.
WDP members also asked City Council to amend a proposed incentive package with Trammell Crow, a national developer planning a 10-year construction project in downtown Austin to convert an old water treatment plant to a multi-use retail and living center. The proposed amendment would require the developer to negotiate a Premier Community Builder Agreement with WDP. A vote on the amendment was postponed on April 5 for three weeks.
“The standards for construction work have become so low in Austin,” Casar said. “These agreements are a way of putting a floor on wages and conditions that stops this race to the bottom. Over time, we want to raise the floor and make Austin construction work good work again.”