Workers’ Memorial Day: “Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living”

Going to work can be dangerous.

More than 4,500 workers in the US died on the job in 2013, the latest year for which data is available.

According to the Center for Disease Control. another 3 million workers in private industry were injured or sickened on the job as were more than 740,000 state and local government workers.

Of those injured on the job, 2.8 million workers were treated in emergency rooms and 140,000 required hospitalization.

On April 28, Workers’ Memorial Day events will be held all over the US to commemorate those who died and to demonstrate for improved health and safety on the job.

“On this Workers’ Memorial Day, we need to join hands to seek stronger safety and health protections and better standards and enforcement,” said James Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters. “To quote Mother Jones, a small woman but a giant in the American labor movement, ‘Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living’.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 22 released its revised Census on Fatal Occupational Injuries.

According to the revised data, 4,585 workers were killed on the job in 2013, slightly below the 4,628 killed on the job in 2012.

But while overall worker deaths remained about the same, there was an alarmingly high incidence of on-the-job deaths of Latino workers. There were 817 deaths of Latino workers in 2013, up by 9 percent from the previous year.

For all other racial and ethnic categories, the number of on-the-job deaths declined slightly.

Among Latinos killed on the job in 2013, 66 percent were immigrant workers.

The industry with the most deaths was construction; 828 construction workers died on the job in 2013. Latinos in 2013 were 25.5 percent of the construction workforce and 29 percent of those who died on the job.

Juan Carlos Reyes of Brownsville, Texas was one of those Latino workers killed on the job, and it was no accident.

Reyes was working on the fourth floor of building that was to become a Marriott hotel in Harlingen, Texas. His employer was a non-union electrical contractor. The platform on which he was standing became unstable, and he fell to his death..

OSHA conducted an investigation and issued five citations for safety violations, including one that OSHA described as willful.

One of the safety violations cited by OSHA was for improperly constructed scaffolding.

Reyes worked in the state that had the most on the job fatalities of any other state–Texas.

In 2013, Texas recorded 508 worker fatalities, down a bit from 2012 when 536 Texas workers died.

Worker deaths in Texas are well above those of other states with comparable populations.

California had 396 worker fatalities, 28 percent fewer than Texas; New York had 178, about 180 percent fewer than Texas.

Of the 508 workers killed in Texas, 192, or 38 percent, were Latinos.

Two Workers’ Memorial Day events in Texas organized by the Workers Defense Project (WDP), will honor the Texas workers who died on the job and urge state and local leaders to take action to make work in Texas safer.

WDP helps low-income workers, especially immigrant workers from Latin America, organize and fight for job safety, fair treatment, good wages, and respect on the job.

One of the events will be held in Austin where state lawmakers are in session. After a media conference that begins at 8:00 A.M. at the Capitol, those participating in the event will meet for a short training session then fan out to urge lawmakers to pass legislation to make work safer and to protect workers from other abuses such as wage theft.

In Dallas, participants will meet at City Hall then lobby City Council members for a city ordinance requiring that workers receive at least a 10-minute rest break for at least every four hours of work.

“Sadly, Texas remains the deadliest state to work construction in the country,” reads a statement on a WDP Facebook page announcing the Austin event. “But this legislative session, Workers Defense Project is fighting to win change to better protect workers. This Workers’ Memorial Day, WDP will honor the workers who have died building our state and urge our elected officials to listen to construction workers and pass life saving laws. Join us for a day of action including a press conference, legislative visits and an exhibit.”

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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.

Immigrant rights are worker rights

Dolores and Miguel came to Austin from El Salvador to work as cleaners at a construction site. They were promised $100 a day in pay. On payday, their boss refused to pay them. When they took action to get the money they were owed, Miguel was deported. Dolores is afraid to pursue the case because she fears being deported too.

Dolores’ and Miguel’s story is one that appears in a new report by the Workers Defense Project and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin entitled “Build a Better Nation: A Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”

According to the report, wage theft, unsafe working conditions, low pay, and other worker rights violations are the result of a failed US immigration policy that has left millions of workers vital to local, state, and national economies vulnerable to extreme exploitation. In addition to being unjust, it’s a situation that could have dire consequences for the entire economy.

“We are facing a crisis in Texas,” said Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Workers Defense Project at a press conference announcing publication of the new report. “If major changes aren’t made to our immigration policy, workers’ rights will continue to erode and businesses in the state won’t be able to operate. Our whole economy could be threatened.”

“We need to have sensible immigration policy, so that businesses can hire the workforce legitimately and we can compete on a level playing field,” said Stan Marek CEO of Marek Brothers Construction.

Companies that take advantage of the undocumented status of their immigrant workers to avoid their legal responsibilities and under pay their workers have an unfair advantage over business competitors that follow the rules.

As long as US immigration policy remains focused primarily on enforcement there is little that can be done to curb these unfair labor practices.

According to “Build a Better Nation,” the problem is widespread. A survey of more than 1,000 immigrant construction workers in Texas cities found that

  • 50 percent of the workers surveyed were undocumented immigrants
  • 61 percent of the undocumented workers were earning poverty level wages
  • 25 percent experienced some form of wage theft
  • 29 percent had no workers compensation
  • 73 percent received no safety training
  • 46 percent didn’t receive breaks during work hours
  • 50 percent had to bring their own drinking water and
  • 14 percent experienced retaliation for trying to improve working conditions.

In addition, average wages for undocumented workers is more than $3 an hour less than US born workers and only 14 percent of the undocumented workers surveyed were making a living wage of more than $14 an hour.

Real immigration reform would make it easier for undocumented workers to take collective action to fight back against these abuses.

“Build a Better Nation” lays out the principles of a sensible immigration policy. Foremost, it should have provisions that ensure that families will not be split apart by deportation. “This protection will limit an unscrupulous employer’s ability to intimidate a worker exercising his or her workplace rights,” reads the report.

Employment rights of hardworking immigrant employees must also be protected. Workers should be able to demand fair and honest treatment by their employers without fear of deportation.

Businesses that treat immigrant workers fairly should be rewarded by protecting them from unscrupulous employers who gain a competitive advantage by violating the rights of immigrant workers.

Undocumented workers should have a clear path toward citizenship. A clear path to citizenship would be the best way to ensure that employers don’t use the threat of deportation to gain an unfair advantage in the labor market. It would also reward the hard work of the many undocumented workers who have become vital to health and strength of local economies all over the US.