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Austin’s Workers Defense Project: A Decade Winning for Workers

WDP Photo

The Austin, Texas, Workers Defense Project (WDP) worker center celebrates its 10th anniversary later this month of battling against wage theft, spotlighting the dangers and winning reforms of the Texas construction industry and standing up for workplace justice and immigrants’ rights.

An in-depth article in the current issue of The Austin Chronicle traces the history of the WDP worker center, from its 2003 inception as a one-person staffed operation, helping low-income, mostly immigrant Austin workers pursue wage theft claims, to its present day incarnation as an influential 1,000-member force and partner with the union movement in championing workers’ rights, especially in the construction industry, with an estimated 60% Latino workforce.     

The Texas State Building and Construction Trades Council (TXBCTC) partnered with the WDP worker center in 2008 to improve conditions in the construction industry across the state. Michael Cunningham, secretary/treasurer of the council, and WDP Executive Director Cristina Tzintzun say:

We teamed up to build a broad labor movement capable of changing business as usual in Texas, for union and nonunion workers in the construction industry. We have brought Latino, white and African American construction workers together from across Texas to call for better jobs and safer working conditions.   

Chronicle staffer Nora Ankrum writes that Henry Allen, one of the earlier funders of the WDP, believes that the partnership between the union movement and the WDP has played a big role in the group‘s workplace victories:

WDP was able to strengthen unexpected partnerships with organizations like TXBCTC, an unusual ally, according to Allen. It is particularly impressive that WDP brought to the table "what are sometimes referred to as the more conservative elements in the labor movement, like building trades," he says.

Cunningham told Ankrum, “Believe me, there were a lot of people that were very skeptical at first about working with WDP.” In 2009, the group published “Building Austin—Building Injustice,” which documented the systematic disregard for safety and health, training and workplace rights.   

The report, says Cun­ning­ham, is "what really woke WDP up and everybody else....It was quite alarming to see how many workers were cheated and misclassified as independent contractors...and losing their basic rights under the law." WDP has been able to "change the public awareness of just how deadly construction jobs are," says Cunningham. He refers to "that old saying" to sum up his relationship with WDP: "A rising tide lifts all boats."

Read the Chronicle’s full story of the WDP, more from Cunningham and Tzintzun and a firsthand account from a WDP member who recently graduated from a Laborers’ (LIUNA's) training program.

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