In Austin, Workers Score a Big Win

In the limestone plaza outside Austin’s City Hall last night, more than 200 orange-clad workers and supporters rallied with signs and banners while rush-hour traffic stopped and started. One worker paced back and forth, rehearsing the statement he’d deliver to the Austin City Council hours later.

Led by the Workers Defense Project, Austin Interfaith, various unions and other organizations, the workers were there to tell the council to stop giving companies tax breaks unless those companies start protecting workers and paying a fair wage. It was the culmination of five years of work for labor groups in the city, and it paid off. At the end of the night, the City Council passed a resolution making Austin the first city to add comprehensive protections for workers into its corporate-incentive program.

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El Paso Becomes Second City to Indict Employer for Wage Theft

On Thursday, for the first time in El Paso history an employer was arrested and indicted for robbing a worker of his wages.

In a state that constantly (and loudly) touts its business-friendly attitude, workers almost never reap the benefits. Construction workers and other low-income workers suffer some of the worst conditions in the country, with some of the worst pay.

In 2011, Austin-based Workers Defense Project successfully lobbied for a bill that amended the state’s wage theft code, authored by Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), that made it harder for employers to get away with stealing workers’ wages. The amendment to the Texas criminal code closed a loophole which allowed employers to get away with paying employees only partially for their work without facing criminal charges. El Paso has become the first city outside of Austin to indict an employer for stealing wages.

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Federal Immigration Reform Proposals Ignore Workers’ Rights

As the immigration debate continues on the national stage, one issue is consistently left out of the conversation: workers’ rights. Texas has the second-largest undocumented population in the country, and in 2011 the state accounted for 16 percent of construction permits issued in the U.S. (more than Florida and California combined). Many undocumented immigrants take construction jobs, becoming easy targets for employers trying to cut costs by exploiting workers.

The Austin-based nonprofit organization, Workers Defense Project, says workers’ rights need to be part of the conversation as legislators in Washington, D.C. hash out immigration reform. On Thursday the group released a study, “Build a Better Nation,” that found 50 percent of all construction workers in Texas are undocumented. Workers Defense and University of Texas researchers surveyed 1,194 construction workers in Austin, Houston, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio for the study. About 70 percent of construction workers in Texas are concentrated in these areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Workers’ Group Urges Reform of Austin’s Incentive-Giving System

In recent years, Austin has become a generous incentive-giver to corporations – but not all companies keep up their end of the deal. On Wednesday the labor advocacy group Workers Defense Project released documents it says prove that an Indiana-based hotel developer violated a $3.8 million incentive deal with the city by failing to pay workers a prevailing wage during construction of a 34-story Marriott hotel in downtown Austin.

In 2009 the city gave White Lodging $3.8 million in tax incentives. In early fall of 2012, the Electrical Workers Union tipped off the city about White Lodging’s noncompliance. Workers Defense, which represents workers in wage theft cases, also got involved.

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Workers’ Group Honors Austin-Area Officials for Supporting Living Wage

In a small celebration at the Workers Defense Project office on Tuesday, the labor advocacy group presented awards—wooden lightboxes with small hammers inside—to Austin and Travis County officials who have helped institute a living wage floor for certain workers.

After years of advocating fair compensation, labor leaders saw a victory last month when the Travis County Commissioner’s Court approved a requirement that all companies receiving county tax incentives pay workers at least $11 per hour—$3.75 more than the federal minimum wage. A special subcommittee of the Austin City Council made a similar recommendation last month. Members who voted for the wage floor were honored at Tuesday’s ceremony.

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