Chicago parents, teachers boycott standarized test; union supports them

The Chicago Teachers Union said that it is standing with parents and teachers boycotting a standardized test that they describe as a low-stakes test that interferes with learning. The union said that it is prepared to “mount a strong defense of (the parents’ and teachers’) collective action.”

More than 500 parents at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, a pre-K through 8th grade public school, have signed opt-out letters saying that their children will not take the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), which Chicago public school students are scheduled to begin taking on March 3.

On Tuesday, February 25, Saucedo teachers announced that they had voted unanimously not to administer the test.

“We are taking this step of civil disobedience because we love our children and students,” said Sarah Chambers, a Saucedo teacher at a media conference announcing the unanimous vote. “The unjust regime of over-testing and over-testing is inhumane. (The boycott) is one step towards reclaiming humanity, and the joy of learning and education.”

On February 27, Chicago Public School boss Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that teachers who refuse to administer the ISAT could have their teaching certificates revoked.

The ISAT, which takes eight days to administer, is being phased out of use. This year will be the last year that it will be given.

ISAT is being replaced by the Northwest Education Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), which Chicago students will take later this year.

According to CTU, “The ISAT . . . is not aligned to any (Chicago Public School) curriculum, and in Chicago, it is no longer used to measure student progress, school performance, promotion, or for any other purpose.”

“The Saucedo educators have taken a bold step in refusing to administer a test that is of no use to students and will be junked by the district next year,” said Sharkey. “Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has already said the ISAT will not be used for selective enrollment, and therefore this serves no purpose other than to give students another standardized test.”

Sharkey also said that parents at other schools have signed opt out letters excusing their children from taking the test.

More Than a Score, a coalition of parents and teachers, has been urging Chicago parents to sign opt out letters, which, so far, more than 1,000 parents have signed.

At the February 25 media conference, Derlina Smith, a Saucedo parent, explained why she joined the opt out movement.

“Our kids need to be learning while they’re at school. They do not need to be over-tested and stressed about a test that does not matter,” said Smith. “It will be discontinued next year, so why does CPS feel as though it’s necessary?”

According to school administrators, schools are required by the state to administer the ISAT.

The state this year paid Pearson, a company that develops and markets standardized tests including the ISAT, $18 million for the test. Chicago Public Schools’ share of this payment is $3 million.

CPS administrators are saying that the ISAT won’t disrupt learning during the two weeks it is administered, but a post on the More Than a Score Facebook page suggests otherwise:

Disruption caused by the ISAT is far more than the 6-8 hours of testing. Even students not in 3-8th grade have disrupted schedules during the testing window; with specials cancelled so that teachers may proctor exams, etc.  We know of at least one school that will be dismissed early (before noon) for the three days of testing.

Special ed students who need testing accommodations can take many more than 6-8 hours to test, and their teachers are lost to administering the test for weeks.

This doesn’t even begin to cover the hours and dollars devoted to ISAT prep time over the months preceding the tests.

Workers burned at Tesoro refinery; company thwarts federal investigation

The United Steelworkers (USW) demanded that the Tesoro Corporation develop and implement a comprehensive safety plan at its Martinez, California refinery where two workers were recently burned by sulfuric acid.

The workers suffered first and second degree burns on their faces after a pipe in the refinery’s alkylation unit ruptured causing sulfuric acid to be sprayed in the air.

Tesoro has called the accident a minor incident and refuses to allow the US Chemical Safety Board to conduct an investigation into the causes of the accident. It also described the workers’ injuries as minor.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the poor condition of the pipes in the alkylation unit where the accident occurred “constitutes an imminent hazard to employees” and ordered the unit to be shut down until the company takes steps to improve safety at the unit.

“Tesoro management trivialized the extent of the workers’ injuries to establish jurisdictional defense specifically to avoid the scrutiny of US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and other agencies,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s oil sector. “Management’s platitudes about operating safely have been exposed, as constant downward pressure to produce continues to threaten workers, their communities and the environment.”

According to the Cal OSHA order prohibiting Tesoro from operating the alkylation unit, workers reported that the pipes at the unit leaked badly, that the company had employed a makeshift solution to fix the leaks, and that another operator suffered facial burns in November when he was sprayed with acid from a pipe at the unit.

Workers also said that their complaints about safety at the unit were ignored by the company, that they were afraid of the safety dangers at the unit, and that the company had reduced staffing on the operations that take place when the unit is shut down and restarted.

According to the order, workers had asked Tesoro to provide them with acid jackets, safety equipment that includes face protection, but were told by supervisors that the company didn’t have any.

The two workers burned in the most recent accident were taken to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, treated for their burns, and told not to work for between five to seven days because the environment at the refinery could trigger infections in their burned skin.

After their treatment, both workers received a letter from Tesoro telling them that they had to contact their supervisor or risk losing their jobs.

A few days after the pipe burst, staff from the US Chemical Safety Board arrived on the scene to conduct a routine inquiry to determine the cause of the accident.

When they tried to return for a follow up visit, Tesoro barred them from entering the plant, saying that CSB didn’t have jurisdiction in the matter.

CSB recently issued a draft report on the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, that report states that Tesoro’s lax attitude toward safety led to the explosion.

Even though CSB has not been allowed to return to the Martinez refinery, it will continue its investigation. The board has subpoenaed company documents about the operation of the refineries alkylation unit.

The United Steelworkers, which represents workers at the Martinez refinery and oil and chemical workers throughout the US, said that Tesoro doesn’t take safety seriously.

“While the company continues to grow and its market share expands, Tesoro’s corporate culture of safety has steadily diminished,” said Beevers. “Management seeks to reduce the number of union safety positions and has proposed other staffing cuts, including the department where workers were injured last week.”

In another matter, the Contra Costa Times News reports that in January Tesoro agreed to pay $472,000 in civil penalties to settle allegations by the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality District that the company violated air pollution laws 35 times between 2009 and 2011.

Medford, OR teachers end strike, Portland teachers’ strike averted

Six hundred teachers in Medford, Oregon returned to work after what appears to be a successful 16-day strike for better public education.

In Portland, Oregon, a’ teachers strike scheduled to begin on February 20 was called off after the teachers’ union and the Portland School System (PSS) reached a last-minute tentative agreement.

In both cases, the school districts tried to impose a long list of concessions on their teachers.

And in both cases, the teachers  made improving public education the main goal of their new contracts, which won them crucial community support.

Members of the Medford Teachers Association (MTA) began striking on February 6 after 10 months of negotiations.

During negotiations, the Medford School District proposed a list of 118 concessions that it wanted from the teachers.

According to the Oregon Strike Insider, the school district showed little interest in negotiating a fair contract and took every opportunity to escalate tensions. The school district declared an end to direct bargaining, demanded a mediator, declared an impasse, and prepared to submit a final best offer.

The teachers were prepared to continue negotiations, but when it became clear that management and the school board had their own private agenda, the teachers struck.

MEA reported that 96 percent of the teachers walked off the job and stayed united throughout the strike.

The school district hoped that pressure from parents and the community would stampede teachers back to work.

But the teachers conducted an outreach effort to the community prior to the strike, and many parents and students sided with the teachers.

The school district tried to keep the schools open by using substitutes and probationary teachers, but that effort seemed to backfire.

“I don’t think that the quality is in the classroom right now,” said one parent as she walked with teachers on a picket line outside a school where replacement teachers were holding class.

That sentiment seemed to be shared by many others. School board members were bombarded with phone calls and emails urging the school district to return to the bargaining table and settle the strike. The district superintendent turned away parents who showed up at his office to demand an end to the strike.

Near the end of the strike, the school district negotiators tried to meet secretly at a local motel to discuss their next move.

But hundreds of demonstrators including teachers and parents gathered outside and told district negotiators to stop hiding and settle the strike.

“We’re here because basically at this point the district has closed their doors to parents,” said Kristen Robinson, a parent at the demonstrations. “They won’t give us any information. They’re not answering phone calls (or) emails.”

When negotiations resumed, the two reached a tentative agreement that union negotiators thought was fair.

The two sides agreed not to release details until the teachers and school board have a chance to review it.

On Sunday, February 22, the union held a meeting to discuss the agreement. The Medford Mail Tribune reported that it was well received by members and that schools would reopen on the 23rd.

“There was some give and take from both sides, and we were able to come to what (the union negotiating) team feels really good about (and) that our members will accept, not just that they’ve settled for something,” said Cheryl Lashley, MEA president to the Mail Tribune.

In Portland, the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools (PSS) reached an agreement hours before the teachers were to go on strike.

PSS, which sought 78 givebacks from the teachers, pursued a strategy similar to the one used in Medford: drag out the negotiations, call in a mediator, declare an impasse, and ram through a final offer.

But while the teachers were negotiating with PSS, they were also organizing internally and reaching out to the public.

The union began its negotiations by including a preamble to its contract proposals.

The preamble, entitled The Schools Portland Students Deserve, laid out a list of objectives that the union hoped to achieve during negotiations–like smaller class sizes, a well rounded education that includes art, music, world languages, PE, library science, and electives for all children regardless of their parents’ income, education for the whole child that includes wrap around services such as counselling, less focus on standardized testing and more focus on letting teachers have more control over curriculum and instruction, and holding everyone in the education system accountable for providing a quality education.

The union then held a series of public forums to publicize these objectives.

The outreach work worked. The union had the strong backing of many parents and students.

When the union met to take a s strike authorization vote on February 7, hundreds of community supporters rallied outside of the meeting.

The Portland Student Union announced that if the teachers struck, members of the student union would walk the picket line with them.

The final agreement achieved many of the union’s objectives. Foremost, PSS agreed to hire 150 new teachers to reduce class sizes.

The teachers wanted to include language in the contract about the new teacher hires, but settled for a memorandum of understanding that put the number and hiring schedule in writing.

Teachers will begin voting on the tentative agreement on Tuesday, February 25, and votes will be tallied on Friday, February 28.

Unions launch international Better Banks campaign

A coalition of unions and consumer advocates on February 18 rallied at the Citibank headquarters on Wall Street to protest the way that US banks treat their workers.

At the rally, the unions announced that they were launching an international campaign to support union organizing among US bank employees.

The main goal of the campaign called Better Banks is to improve work at banks so that banks can better serve customers.

Better Banks is a joint effort of CWA, UNI Global Union, and the Committee for Better Banks.

Rally participants included members of bank worker unions from around the world attending a New York City conference about the Better Banks campaign.

An estimated one million bank workers and customers worldwide demonstrated their support for Better Banks by tweeting and posting on Facebook pictures and messages of support for the Wall Street demonstrators.

According to those at the rally, stark inequalities characterize work in the US banking system.

“I have been to sales rallies, where the top executives of the company brag about how great the stock is doing, then the next morning I have to listen to one of my tellers complain she doesn’t have enough money to buy baby formula for her child,” said Robert Freeman, a former bank employee now working to organize the industry.

A report by the Committee for Better Banks shows that low wages are the norm for many bank employees.

The report finds that because of low salaries one-third of US bank employees qualify for some kind of public assistance such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Medicaid and other children’s health programs.

The salaries of top executives on the other hand are much more generous. “The outsized wealth and power of Wall Street is evidenced in salary raises for CEOs like Jamie Dimon,” reads the report. “In 2013 Dimon received a 74% pay increase, bringing his salary to nearly $20 million, after being fined $20 billion dollars for regulatory violations.”

Bank workers also work under stressful conditions that put their health at risk.

“I was a confident and loyal employee,” said a bank employee, who wished to remain anonymous, to the authors of the report. “After being slammed daily for sales scores I started to have panic attacks and lost all pride in my work because it was never good enough.”

This kind of pressure can lead to poor customer service.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Well Fargo managers made their sales representatives call friends and family to pressure them into opening accounts.

Unlike top bank executives like Dimon, who maintained his position at JP Morgan Chase despite the banks’ involvement in scandals, front line bank workers have little job security.

In New York City, there are 19,800 fewer people working in the financial industry since the industry’s crash in 2008.

That trend holds true across the US. In 2006, the height of employment in the banking sector, there were 8.35 million banking sector jobs. Currently, there are 7.7 million.

Many of the lost jobs are direct service jobs such as tellers at branch offices, but cuts also are taking place among IT and call center workers, whose jobs have been outsourced to countries such as India and the Philippines.

Job cuts are expected to continue. Bank of America is projecting job cuts affecting 10 percent of its workforce during 2014. JP Morgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and UBS AG are also projecting job cuts during 2014 ranging from 3 percent 16 percent of their workforce.

Bank employees are told that the jobs cuts, excessive pressure, and low wages are natural features of bank work, but that’s not the case when bank employees have unions.

In Brazil, bank workers, 95 percent of whom belong to a union, conducted a 23-day strike in 2013 that won an 8 percent across the board pay raise, an 8.5 percent increase in the minimum pay, and a 12 percent increases in profit sharing. They also were compensated for their time off during the strike and won protections against management harassment, one day’s pay per year of service for absence allowances, and compensation that allows them to enjoy cultural activities.

The new collective bargaining agreement resulting from the strike calls for the creation of a team of independent experts who will investigate the causes of employment related illnesses.

In the US, the unions that organized the recent Wall Street demonstration are also hoping that the kind of international solidarity expressed in support of the Better Banks campaign will make it easier for US bank workers to join a union.

“Nowadays, it is really hard to build unions in the United States and this kind of innovative solidarity movement can make a change by delivering the message to the US workers that they are not alone,” said Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary for UNI Global.

UI Chicago faculty strike to protest administration stonewalling

Faculty members at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) on February 19 ended a two-day strike called to protest the administration’s stonewalling during collective bargaining negotiations.

The strike was organized by United Faculty AFT Local 6456, which represents 1,100 tenured and non-tenured faculty members at UIC.

Local 6456 won a union representation election in 2012. The union and administration have been negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement for the last 18 months.

Union frustration with the administration’s stonewalling boiled over recently.

“Our bargaining team has spent the last three days negotiating with the administration,” reads a union message to members. “What has it accomplished? Nothing. As far as we can tell, the only reason that they showed up was so that they could say they weren’t walking out on talks.”

The union called the strike, which 95 percent of the members voted to authorize in December, to bring attention to important issues that need to be addressed in the bargaining sessions.

Foremost among these issues is the question of whether UIC will pursue its strategic mission of providing a quality education to its largely working class student body–a mission agreed to by both faculty and the administration in their joint Strategic Thinking Report

“The UIC faculty is committed to that mission,” write Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels, two UIC English professors in a piece written for Jacobin. “And the whole point of the strike is to help us fulfill it.”

The administration says that it is committed to the same mission, but it has raised student tuition 25 percent since 2007 without making substantial investments in those who most affect the quality of the students’ education–the faculty.

“It is outrageous that (UIC) has increased tuition and burdened students with debt, all while socking away almost a billion dollars of students’ money,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “Just as outrageous is that the administration has spent the students’ tuition dollars on increasing the number of administrative positions and reducing the number of faculty.”

During the last five years, student enrollment has increased by 13 percent, said Joe Persky, president of Local 6456 during an interview with WTTW television. But the number of tenured faculty has declined by 1 percent during the same period.

On the other hand, the number of administrators, many of whom are paid substantially more than faculty members, has increased by 10 percent.

Faculty salaries have also lagged.

The average annual salary for tenured UIC professors, which according to Davis and Michaels is $65,000, has remained the same for the last two years, and three years ago faculty pay was reduced temporarily when they were required to take unpaid furloughs.

The situation for non-tenured lecturers is much worse. Many are paid $30,000 a year, barely a living wage in Chicago, yet they play a crucial role at the university.

Lecturers teach many of the first year courses at UIC, and success during the first year is a major factor in determining whether a student graduates.

The union wants a reasonable pay boost for all faculty, especially those on the non-tenured track. It also wants three-year contracts for lecturers.

But the union is seeking more than higher wages and better job security.

It’s fighting for a collective bargaining agreement that improves their students’ education–one that results in reduced class sizes, more individualized instruction, and safe and well equipped classrooms and labs so that cutting edge research and instruction can take place.

UIC also wants a collective bargaining agreement that ensures that faculty have a relevant voice in curriculum and budgetary decisions–decisions that affect the quality of their work.

Davis and Michaels write that as UIC has become more corporatized many decisions involving what faculty teach and how much will be spent on instruction has been usurped by a bloated bureaucracy whose values have been shaped in the corporate boardroom rather than in the classroom.

This usurpation has taken place under the guise of “shared governance,” which means “that faculty senates can ‘advise’ the administration, and the administration can then do whatever it wants,” they write. “To call shared governance real governance is like saying your dog has an equal say in how your household is run because sometimes when he whines he gets fed.”

The union decided to strike reluctantly, but in the end felt that a strike was the only action that could get the administration’s attention.

“The heart of UIC is its faculty and its students, but the trustees short change them both,” said Persky. “The administration’s priorities don’t match the University’s mission, and after trying to negotiate a fair contract for eighteen months, (they) left us no choice but to strike.”

Save Our Unions: A review

It was the summer of 1969. I was living in San Francisco. I had just gotten a job with Pacific Bell, the West Coast telephone company.

One afternoon, I was performing some routine maintenance when a shop steward walked up to me and said, “Put down your tools; we’re walking out.”

I looked up, saw other workers heading for the exit, and dutifully followed.

We gathered across the street from Pacific Bell building and milled around for a while.

Finally, someone (I can’t remember who) told us that the company had disciplined two stewards for union activity and that the walkout was called to protect them. We were told to go home and report back to work the next morning. If the issue was resolved, we’d work; if not, we’d stay out.

The next morning, I showed up and resumed working. The disciplined stewards were also back on the job.

My wildcat strike experience wasn’t unique. There had been another one at another Bay Area Pacific Bell work site within the last year.

African-American auto workers in Detroit and sanitation workers in Memphis had conducted wildcat strikes to fight racism, and other workers in other cities had walked off the job to protest speed up, safety problems, management harassment, and other grievances.

In 1970, more than 200,000 postal workers walked of the job defying their union leadership and President Nixon who both told them to return to work.

Over the next ten years, wildcat strikes took place among auto workers, municipal employees, miners, truck drivers, food processing workers, and workers in other industries.

During the 1970s, workers’ real wages continued to rise, more got access to health care and pension benefits, and more won a voice on the job through union membership. (The peak year of union membership in the US was 1979 when 21 million workers were union members.)

But those victories would not last.

Capital during most of the 1970s had been on the defensive, but by the end of the decade, it was beginning to revamp, restructure, and reorganize. It also recommitted itself to the class struggle.

It didn’t take long for capital to counterattack, and by 1981, it was labor that was on the defensive.

Steve Early in his newest book Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress  published by Monthly Review Press surveys and analyzes the damage done to the US labor movement by capital’s resurgence.

Early’s book, a collection of loosely organized essays, focuses most of its attention on more recent developments, but he begins with some history and context including appropriately enough the 1981 strike by PATCO, the US air traffic controllers’ union.

The strike, a crushing defeat for labor, wasn’t really a fair fight. Capital acted decisively and in concert; labor was tentative and splintered.

Before the strike, President Reagan, serving as capital’s surrogate, marshalled support among key players like the Air Transport Association, the air carriers’ trade association, which despite concerns that business would suffer, backed the President when he fired the striking controllers.

Labor responded timidly. Leaders paid lip service to solidarity but told members to cross PATCO picket lines and keep working.

Reagan’s victory, writes Early, “strengthened the hand of airline management in its own future showdowns with ALPA (the pilots union), IAM, the Flight Attendants, and other unions.”  The same could be said of capital in general.

The defeat of PATCO was a watershed moment for the working class. During the three decades that followed wages stagnated, benefits eroded, and millions of good paying jobs migrated to low-wage regions in the US and abroad. Union membership declined and union power waned.

Early says that unions were unable to resist capital’s onslaught for a number of reasons:

  • A sclerotic union leadership, more interested in preserving privilege than fighting capital, clung to the idea that a union’s role is to work with management to prevent labor unrest; capital on the other hand embraced class war.
  • Unions isolated themselves from the broader public. One example was labor’s position on health care, which until 2010 had been to concern itself only with protecting employer-based health plans. Early argues that unions for the last 30 years should have been fighting for health care for all and points to the success of telephone workers in the 1980s who protected their health care benefits by publicly supporting the idea that health care is a right not a privilege.
  • Unions paid too little attention to internal organizing, i.e., educating and mobilizing their own membership; when unions conducted education campaigns, the campaigns focused on a narrow political narrative that gave uncritical support to the Democratic party.
  • Union leaders allowed and in many cases encouraged union democracy to wither.

Early argues that labor’s revitalization will depend on a re-energized grassroots movement that unites non-union, low-wage workers like those who have been striking for a living wage and forward thinking rank-and-file workers engaged in day-to-day “shop floor organizing.”

As Early acknowledges, this work won’t be easy, and some of his dispatches describe missteps like those of Ron Carey and Arnold Miller.

Miller was a leader of Miners for Democracy, Carey of Teamsters for Democracy.

Both won elections that ousted entrenched and imperious union regimes.

Both were unable to sustain their victories.

Miller was ruined by incompetence.

Carey was more successful. He led a winning strike against UPS but was outmaneuvered by remnants of the union’s old order and forced from office.

Early’s dispatches, however, aren’t just about missteps. Some describes some promising new developments.

At T-Mobile, the nation’s fourth largest wireless service provider that has fiercely resisted unionization, CWA helped workers build an organization called T-Mobile United, or simply TU. While not recognized by the company, TU acts like a union and has won some victories.

UNITE-HERE has recruited and trained people to be salts–pro-union people who go to work at non-union hospitality businesses to help workers at these businesses organize. Early describes the successes and setbacks experienced by three of these young salts as well as some insights they learned while working.

Early’s dispatches tell the good, the bad, and the ugly of labor’s fight for survival, but they also describe a new era of capitalism that makes worker collective action harder.

Service jobs now dominate the economy, and these jobs are difficult to organize through traditional means. How do you organize Starbucks workers as some have tried when the company’s ubiquitous coffee shops that employ a handful of people are scattered widely across a city?

(Union-backed worker centers for low wage workers that Early mentions may be one answer.)

Even old industries are new. Take for instance telecommunications. When the regulated and highly unionized telephone monopoly was broken up and deregulated, it became more difficult to coordinate bargaining and strikes.

On top of that, their landline business is dwindling and being replace by wireless services, where most of the jobs are non-union.

While much has changed, other things have remained constant. It’s still possible for an energized, motivated, and organized group of workers to stand up to their bosses and win,

That’s why, if I were Early’s editor, I would have encouraged him to spend more time examining the work of the Chicago Teachers Union.

At the beginning of the book, he devotes a paragraph to CTU’s successful strike and an end note refers the reader to other works about the strike.

One hundred fifty pages later, Early mentions the strike again but only to criticize a concession that the union made to preserve its health care benefit. (The union agreed to a dubious wellness program pushed by the city as a way of reducing health care costs.)

Despite that concession, the contract won by CTU’s nine-day strike was a solid victory for public school employees specifically and public education in general. Other unions, especially public service unions, could learn from CTU’s success.

While CTU’s success is instructive, so is the recent defeat of UAW’s organizing campaign at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant.

UAW relied heavily on a hands-across-the-ocean outreach effort to Volkswagen management in Germany to win the campaign.

Considering UAW’s lack of success organizing southern auto workers by traditional means and Volkswagen’s accepting attitude toward unions, this approach may not have been a bad idea.

But it didn’t work.

Now it’s time to consider some new approaches to union building, and while Save Our Unions spends a lot of time analyzing labor’s problems over the last thirty years, it also describes some new approaches that more people should know about.

Austin construction workers demand fair treatment from luxury living developer

More than 200 construction workers and their supporters on February 15 rallied in downtown Austin to demand that a developer of luxury living communities pay its workers a living wage and eliminate illegal and dangerous working conditions.

The rally took place near Gables Park Towers, a luxury living complex being developed by Gables Residentials, an Atlanta-based company owned by ING, a Dutch-based multinational financial services company.

“I’ve worked in construction for 10 years, and I have never seen worse conditions than on Gables Park Tower,” said Heriberto Mendoza, a member of Workers Defense Project, a local membership-based worker center for low-wage workers that organized the protest.

Mendoza filed a wage theft lien against Gables Residential, Flores Painting Services, a subcontractor for whom Mendoza worked, and Andres Construction Services, the project’s general contractor.

According to Mendoza, he has not been paid for overtime worked since he came on the job in January.

Gables Residentials is a big player in the development of downtown Austin, where luxury condo and apartment construction is booming.

Its other Austin projects have been the subject of worker criticism as well.

“Supervisors would mistreat us, making us work much longer than anyone should have to work without water,” said WDP member Filemon Salas, who worked on the construction of the nearby Gables Park Plaza in 2009.  “I saw several co-workers faint because they were made to work in 100 to 110 degree heat without water.”

Salas was the main plaintiff in a 2010 wage theft suit against Capoera Construction, a subcontractor, and Greater Metroplex Interiors, one of the contractors on the Gables Park Plaza project.

Gables was also the developer of 21 Rio, a luxury condo near the University of Texas where three workers died in a 2009 scaffolding accident.

Workers at Gables downtown Austin projects have reported nearly $130,000 in wage theft, no rest breaks (a violation of a city ordinance won as a result of a WDP campaign), 50 to 60 hour work weeks with no overtime pay, no safety training, and payroll fraud.

The rally on February 15 was the launch of a campaign to get Gables to join WDP’s Better Building program, said Emily Timm, WDP deputy director.

“The program calls for workers to receive a living wage, have safe working conditions, and for companies to invest in workforce training,” said Timm.

A number of organizations active in developing property in the Austin area have already joined Better Building including Apple, Foundation Communities, Pflugerville Community Development Corporation, and Saltillo Collaborative.

WDP had been trying unsuccessfully to talk to Gables for some time to get them to consider joining Better Building.

It was only after the February 15 demonstrations was announced that Gables agreed to a meeting, which was held February 13 to discuss conditions on Gables’ job sites.

“We need honest companies that will invest in our state and our workforce (and) not take advantage of our communities,” read WDP’s announcement about the rally. “Other developers have agreed to work with WDP to ensure good jobs for all workers. It is time for Gables to follow suit in improving the construction industry.”

WDP asked supporters who couldn’t attend the rally to tweet Gables and urge the company to support worker safety and a living wage.