A group of striking ironworkers and their supporters on Friday, October 26 gathered in front of the University of Texas System headquarters in downtown Austin to speak out about unsafe and unfair working conditions where they work. The group tried to meet with UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to ask him why the system hires and tolerates construction project contractors that don’t treat their workers with dignity or respect.
The UT System has planned for $1 billion worth of new construction projects over the next four years on its campuses. The demonstrators wanted to urge Chancellor Cigarroa not to hire two contractors, D’Ambra Steel Services and Great Western Erectors, for these projects unless they improve their safety record and treat their workers better.
The ironworkers said that these two contractors and others in the business of installing rebar on buildings under construction pay low wages, don’t provide health care for work related injuries, discriminate against immigrant workers, and don’t take adequate safety precautions such as providing proper access to drinking water or reliable safety equipment and gear.
When the demonstrators walked into the UT System building to ask for a meeting with Chancellor Cigarroa, the UT System officials called the police who then removed the demonstrators from the building.
“Though UT officials refused to meet, we delivered our message through the media and will continue to escalate actions until the university system takes steps to improve working conditions on their campuses,” said Ryan Haney of the Coalition for Ironworker Justice, a community-labor organization that has been helping the striking ironworkers.
In May ironworkers who work for D’Ambra walked off construction projects in Dallas to protest poor conditions. One month later, about 70 D’Ambra ironworkers at an Exxon Mobil construction site near Houston walked off the job for the same reasons.
Augustin Munos of Houston explained what led him to go on strike. Munos started to feel the symptoms of heat stroke while he was on the job. When he tried to rest, a supervisor told him to keep working.
Munos finally called his wife, who took him to a hospital where he stayed for eight days.
When he returned to work with documentation showing that his illness was work related, the company said that it wasn’t a job related illness and refused to pay for Munos’ medical expenses, which totalled about $20,000.
“I told them I need help for the days I was in the hospital and unable to work, so now I have no money and I can’t eat,” Munos said. “I’ve had to sell the title of my car to pay my rent and other things. I have to pay $20,000, but I can’t pay that on my salary, which is why I went on strike.”
Jorge Balderas of Dallas also is on strike against D’Ambra. His wife has cancer, but D’Ambra doesn’t provide health care benefits for its workers like Balderas. Before Balderas’ wife could get treatment, the hospital sent a letter to D’Ambra asking the company to verify that Balderas did not have employer health care benefits.
“They sent a letter to D’Ambra, and they didn’t respond” Balderas said. “My wife’s treatment was delayed because the company wouldn’t respond. If I’d been here [in Dallas] and hadn’t gone [to the D’Ambra office in Houston] personally, they would never have responded.”
It would be good to have a health care benefit, Balderas said. For now if you get hurt on the job, you’re on your own. “They don’t help you at all. If you get hurt and you go home, you don’t get paid,” he added. “And you have to pay for the treatment. Your loss is doubled then.”
The striking ironworkers are non-union; although, they have been receiving support from the Iron Workers Union. Some have subsequently joined the union.
The ironworkers have been trying to get public institutions such as universities and municipal governments to take a closer look at the working conditions of the contractors who work on their construction projects .
In May, a delegation of Dallas ironworkers and their supporters tried to meet with Calvin Jamison, vice-president for administration at UT Dallas. D’Ambra ironworkers had previously walked off the job at the university’s new Arts and Technology Building construction site.
The delegation wanted to tell UT Dallas officials about some of the safety problems that sparked the strike.
Instead of listening to the ironworkers, UT Dallas officials called in the campus police, who then detained the delegation and eventually escorted them off campus.
A couple of months later, a crane accident killed two workers at the project. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident. The project’s contractor and subcontractors, including D’Ambra, have denied responsibility for the accident. The owners of the crane are being sued by families of the construction workers who were killed.