The growing awareness of her name and the importance of her work helped land her an interview with the famous actor Alec Baldwin on his late night talk show.
Why shouldn’t it? When you read the headlines bellowing out of Texas that read, “Texas is the most deadly place for construction workers in the country, with a worker dying every 2.5 days.”
Ms. Cristina Tzintzún would like to change that and reduce it to zero.
Southernliving.com helps with her biography. The daughter of a Mexican immigrant and the granddaughter of a Bracero (so named for a guest worker program in the United States from 1942 to 1964), Cristina Tzintzún, 31, is an American citizen who sees the impact of immigrant rights as an issue close to home: Her younger stepsister is one of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Texas is home to the second-largest undocumented population in the country, second only to California. Many take construction jobs, and in a state that accounted for 16% of construction permits in the U.S. in 2011 (more than Florida and California combined), this work force is desperately needed. Still, half of the state’s nearly 1 million construction workers have no papers.
Ms. Tzintzún leads the Austin, Texas-based Workers Defense Project (WDP), one of the most established worker centers in the South. Founded in 2002, WDP is a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the working conditions of low-income and undocumented workers.
Through education and advocacy, Tzintzún, who is also a member of FuturoFund, an Austin-based philanthropic group that serves the Latino community, seeks to protect these workers. In addition to offering basic classes (English, computer literacy, leadership development), Tzintzún and the WDP are helping laborers fight for their paychecks (one in four undocumented workers experiences wage theft) and informing them about their right to safe conditions in the workplace.
The Newyorktimes.com adds immigrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are especially vulnerable to abuse by contractors. Each year, the Workers Defense Project, which has 2,000 dues-paying members, receives about 500 complaints from workers who say they were cheated out of overtime or denied a water break in Texas’ scorching summer heat or stuck with huge hospital bills for an on-the-job injury.
The Workers Defense Project is one of 225 worker centers nationwide aiding many of the country’s 22 million immigrant workers. The centers have sprouted up largely because labor unions have not organized in many fields where immigrants have gravitated, like restaurants, landscaping and driving taxis.
Mr. Erich Schlegel of The New York Times writes the Workers Defense Project in Austin has racked up an unusual number of successes. It has won more than $1 million in back pay over the last decade on behalf of workers alleging violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. A report it wrote on safety problems spurred the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate 900 construction sites in Texas — leading to nearly $2 million in fines.
The workers organization made common cause with law-abiding contractors to persuade the state’s Republican-dominated legislature to approve a law that made wage theft — an employer’s deliberate failure to pay wages due — a criminal offense.
The Workers Defense Project has just 18 employees, and Ms. Tzintzún earns $43,000 a year. WDP succeeded in bringing Apple to the negotiating table. The group extracted a promise that construction workers on Apple’s new Austin office complex would receive at least $12 an hour, not the more commonly paid $10 — as well as workers’ compensation coverage.
WDP persuaded the Austin City Council to require Apple to hold talks with the group as a condition for $8.6 million in city tax incentives. (The group had previously persuaded the council to enact Texas’ first ordinance requiring rest and water breaks for construction workers.)
The workers’ compensation pledge was an important victory. The construction industry in Texas has a higher fatality rate than that in most other states, but Texas is the only one that does not require building contractors to provide workers’ compensation to cover an injured worker’s hospital bills and disability benefits.
Ms. Tzintzún’s group exacts victories because they are asking for what many would view as minimum, understandable requests and a large organization like Apple does not like to oppose them publicly.
Austin.indymedia provides a glimpse into some of the working conditions. Three men who died at 21 Rio complex were employed by American Mast Climbers, a company subcontracted by Maxum Development.
Investigators say faulty scaffolding led to the workers’ death in June of 2009. It’s reported the crew was forced to work more than 60 a hours week applying stucco to the building, which is now an apartment complex.”They not only worked long hours, but were forced to work in hazardous working conditions without workers compensation or rest breaks,” Director of the Workers Defense Project, Christina Tzintzun, said.
Npr.org provides more insight into working conditions as well. One in every 13 workers in Texas is employed in the state’s $54 billion-per-year construction industry.
Homebuilding and commercial construction may be an economic driver for the state, but it’s also an industry riddled with hazards. Years of illegal immigration have pushed wages down, and accidents and wage fraud are common. Of the nearly 1 million workers laboring in construction here, approximately half are undocumented.
Many of those workers have been in the U.S. for years, even decades. This critical mass of eager, mostly Hispanic workers means it’s possible for a family from New York or California to move to Texas and buy a brand new, five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot home for $160,000.
Just how cheap is the cheap labor in Texas? Sometimes, it’s free. Employers dangle financial bait in front of their faces and when the work is finished they leave and the workers are not paid. Undocumented workers are usually too afraid to complain to Texas authorities, even when they go home with empty pockets. And they almost never talk to reporters.
“Ninety percent of the people who come to our organization have come because they’ve been robbed of their wages,” says Ms. Tzintzun.
What does it take to work for WDP? A recent job opening on their website explains the responsibilities.
The Membership Organizer position builds power for low-wage workers by recruiting new members, providing leadership development and safety trainings, and coordinating membership events and activities (e.g., ESL and Computer classes). The Membership Organizer also helps to coordinates a worker-led committee that plans social events, outreach events, and organizing activities on behalf of the organization. The Membership Organizer’s goal is to mobilize the membership base for community actions and to develop their leadership to advocate for themselves.
There is something very important offered in return.
• Competitive Salary
• Full employer-covered health insurance
• Paid vacation and sick leave
• Maternity/paternity leave
• 403b Retirement Plan for qualified employees
If you were a construction worker from any cultural background, would you like to receive the above benefits with your employment? Wouldn’t it be great if the Texas construction industry provided that for all of their hard workers as well?
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Sources: Up Late W/ Alec @UpLateWithAlec Nytimes.com, Erich Schlegel for The New York Times, austin.indymedia.org, Npr.org, Dallas Morning News, www.workersdefense.org., Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.