The office of the workplace justice coordinator at the Workers Defense Project is always a busy place. Most of the workers who go to her Austin-based office have labor-related complaints to report. She has heard about cases of missing digits, unpaid labor, and poor working conditions. The stories come in from New York to Texas.
On one particular day the office was full of workers from Honduras who had been doing construction work applying stucco to the outside of a fancy, seventy-story student dorm. They weren’t complaining of the dangerous work involved, because they were used to jobs like that. What bothered them was that they hadn’t been paid for the previous two weeks. Each one was still waiting to be paid the $1,000 owed to them.
After the coordinator listened to their stories and attempted, to no avail, to persuade the contractors to come up with the wages, she decided to resort to filing a lien on the building site. This ingenious move results in halting any efforts of transactions on a property and can include freezing of its bank and other financial assets.
This provided the anticipated effect of getting the attention of the developer and general contractor, who responded within hours, setting up a meeting between contractors and unpaid workers. The construction company agreed to pay the almost $25,000 they owed.
The director of the Workers Defense Project claims the lien is a great tool when used properly in the hands of workers. It circumvents the necessity of dealing with subcontractors and makes the project owner and general contractor accountable.
The project already has earned accolades for their support of unfair working conditions, support in resolving issues of back pay and provided a springboard for immigrant worker rights. They took on the formidable Apple Corporation and succeeded in sealing a deal for higher wages. The organization has helped many unskilled laborers to feel empowered at the workplace. It organized a rally with members that showed up at the state capitol bearing mock coffins as a reminder of those construction workers who have died in job-related incidents.
The spirit to unionize and protect employee rights and unfair pay practices should be a guaranteed labor right in this country. If you are a victim of unethical labor practices, there are groups and organizations out there that can help. As one worker stated, the project has inspired laborers to come together and deal with adverse conditions with a higher purpose. It has inspired many workers to stand up for their rights.
nytimes.com, “The Workers Defense Project, a Union in Spirit” Steven Greenhouse, Aug. 10, 2013