Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Build a Better Texas

The Texas construction industry is facing a crisis. Construction work in the state is dangerous and unfair for workers and companies that refuse to play by the rules have a competitive advantage over those who do.

In order to create a better Texas, we need our legislators to move quickly on legislative proposals that would make the construction industry more sustainable and fair for workers and their families, businesses, and local communities.

To this end, the Build a Better Texas Coalition is converging in Austin today for the Day of the Fallen. The coalition is a statewide group of community organizations, churches, business leaders in the construction industry, and other concerned groups and individuals.

The Day of the Fallen starts with visits with lawmakers to educate them about the legal violations and dangerous conditions Texas construction workers face on the job and what Texas can do to make sure that they are paid fairly and make it home safe to their families.

The event concludes with a march from the J.J. Pickle Federal Building Plaza to the South Steps of the Capitol to raise awareness about the plight of construction workers and to honor those who have lost their lives building Texas.

Fuerza del Valle Workers Center has been an active member of the Build a Better Texas Coalition. Fuerza is sending a delegation to Austin to participate in the Day of the Fallen and to highlight working conditions in the Rio Grande Valley. The center is composed of workers, leaders within La Union del Pueblo Entero, South Texas Civil Rights Project, Proyecto Juan Diego, and other organizations within the Equal Voice Network.

The stakes in Texas’s construction industry are very high. The 2010 U.S. census estimated that there are 950,000 construction workers in the state of Texas. One in thirteen Texas workers labor in the construction industry and $1 out of every $20 generated by the Texas economy comes from the industry.  In 2011, Texas single-handedly accounted for 16% of new housing construction permits in the country, more than California and Florida combined.  

Despite the relative prosperity and growth of the industry in Texas compared to other states, it remains the worst when it comes to pay and safety for workers.  More construction workers die in Texas than any other state, and one in five workers is seriously injured on the job due to lack of safety training and equipment.  From 2007 to 2011, 585 construction workers died in Texas, compared to 299 in California. 

Leaders in both the House and Senate have filed legislation that would create positive change in the Texas construction industry.  They deserve careful consideration and wide public support.

SB 167 (Sen. Deuell) and HB 493 (Rep. Hernandez Luna) require OSHA 10-hour safety trainings for all workers on state-owned or funded construction sites to address the fact that 60% of construction workers do not receive basic safety training.

HB 475 (Rep. Walle) and SB 740 (Sen. Rodriguez) require construction employers to provide workers compensation. Currently, only 40% of construction workers report having workers compensation resulting in financial ruin for unprotected workers who are injured or taxpayers picking up the tab for uncompensated hospital visits.

HB 731 (Rep. Raymond) and SB 341 (Sen. Rodriguez) require construction employers to provide workers with breaks every 4 hours on government sites to rest and drink water. This bill would reduce the number of accidents and deaths on the job due to laboring in the deadly heat.

HB 372 (Rep. Deshotel) creates penalties for construction employers who illegally misclassify their employees as independent contractors to lower costs, to gain a competitive advantage in bidding for contracts, and to shift tax burdens to working families. Every year Texas is cheated out of $54.5 million in unpaid unemployment insurance tax due to misclassification.

HB 298 (Rep. Rodriguez) prohibits retaliation under Texas Pay Day Law. Right now, 1 out of 3 workers who try to recover wages is retaliated against by their employer. HB 494 (Rep. Hernandez Luna) and SB 741 (Sen. Rodriguez), HB 1131 (Rep. Gonzalez), and SB 340 (Sen. Rodriguez) all strengthen enforcement against wage theft to deal with the fact that one in five construction workers is denied pay by their employer.

These bills are concrete steps Texas can take to promote safe worksites, provide access to medical care for injured workers, and ensure that workers are paid fairly. They are good for workers, good for their families, good for honest businesses, and good for Texas.

To learn more about Texas’s construction industry, read Build A Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State, a Report from Workers Defense Project in collaboration with the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. It can be downloaded at:

Friday, February 15, 2013

The State of the Union

Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network 
Responds to President’s SOTU Address

President Obama addressed the country last night, presenting his view of the state of the union and, giving the nation a sense of the direction that he intends to lead the country. The core organizations of the Equal Voice Network, with our 30,000 constituents in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, welcome the President’s leadership. The critical state of our own communities, however, requires a number of caveats.

On the Chance to Earn a Living Wage

The President’s call to lift families out of poverty and into the middle class are a welcome acknowledgement that in our society, 40 hours of hard work do nothing to alleviate a families’ basic needs. His suggestion of a raising the minimum wage to $9.00 is, of course, great news to families who struggle along at the present wage standard. But $9.00 an hour is not going to take a Valley family out of poverty. Proyecto Azteca, an Equal Voice partner, insists on paying its workers at least $11.00 an hour. Ann Cass, the executive director says, “I refuse to pay poverty wages for my workers who are building homes for other poor people. I challenge other Valley businesses to do the same. If our small nonprofit can pay a living wage, then so can their companies.”

On Comprehensive Immigration Reform

If there is one single issue that would have the greatest effect on our communities, it would be a comprehensive reform of immigration policies. The Equal Voice Network appreciates the President’s insistence on a roadmap to citizenship, but we are unhappy with the continual confusion of immigration reform and border security. The ACLU, another partner working on behalf of immigrants’ rights, agrees. Astrid Dominguez, the ACLU’s Border Fellow, noted that “We are disappointed to hear the President call for increased border security.  The border is secure, apprehensions are down, and immigration enforcement spending is already out of control.  If the President insists on diverting more resources to border security, we hope that it is spent on improving port of entry infrastructure, and on increased oversight and accountability of Customs and Border Protection."  

On Early-Childhood Education

While education remains a core value for our families, it is increasingly a challenge for a colonia child to graduate from high school, college ready. The call for universal early childhood education was one of the president’s ideas that the Network welcomes whole-heartedly. Our partners at ARISE and Proyecto Juan Diego have tracked the benefits of that intervention for years.
Ron Rogers of the South Texas Adult Resource and Training Center in San Benito, sees a clear connection between early childhood education and future employment. In response to the President, Rogers said, “Early childhood education is vital in the Valley. There is a clear relationship between an individual’s early education and the opportunity for a good job.”

Last night, the President offered some concrete initiatives, for which the Equal Voice Network is grateful. For too long we have heard the sound of ideas being batted about, a noise that has done little to pave our roads, take care of our sick, offer well-paying jobs or address the multiple issues that face our families. For our part, we will continue to count on the ideas and the initiatives of our families and their communities.

We will work for change.
We will work collectively in support of families.
We will protect the rights and opportunities of all families.
We will be involved in our communities.
We will teach our children values and character.
We will support our youth.
We will inform others of the issues we face and what we need to do about them.
We will hold our elected officials accountable to the common good.

About the Equal Voice Network

The majority of the families in our Network are from one of the 1,200 colonias in the Valley. They therefore live and work in some of the most challenging conditions in the USA—we have the highest unemployment and lowest paying jobs in America. Our neighborhoods lack even the most basic infrastructure—flooding is an unresolved and constant threat to our homes, our streets are narrow, unlighted and lack sidewalks, there are no parks to speak of, and our transportation options are so narrow as to be practically nonexistent. Many of our families are of mixed immigration status, and have been ripped apart by the massive deportations of the past few years, even as they have been racially profiled. While we struggle with an epidemic in obesity, apart from the children who qualify for Medicaid, medical insurance is unknown in our neighborhoods,. Education is a challenge even as it remains one of the most important values to our families. Our families want to be a part of bringing about substantial change to the Valley, but for decades have been left out of the important decisions that have been taken on our behalf.

Core organizations of the Equal Voice Network include:
Proyecto Juan Diego, Cameron Park (Sister Phylis Peters, Executive Director, (; ACLU Border Abuse Documentation Project, (Astrid Dominguez, Fellow,; Mano a Mano, Brownsville (Cristela Gomez, Director,; The South Texas Adult Learning and Training Center, San Benito, (Ron Rogers, Executive Director,;  Proyecto Libertad, Harlingen (Rogelio Nuñez, Director,; ARISE: A Resource in Sharing Equality, Alamo (Lourdes Flores, Executive Director,; La Union del Pueblo Entero, San Juan (Juanita Valdez-Cox, Executive Director,; Proyecto Azteca, San Juan (Ann Williams Cass, Executive Director,; South Texas Civil Rights Project, Alamo (Sr. Moira Kenny, Co-Director,