In Texas, Construction Reform Has an Unlikely Champion

Amien Essif

More construction workers die in Texas than in any other state—and reformers say tightened regulations are a must. (Workers Defense Project)

At the end of April, the Texas House Busi­ness and Indus­try Com­mit­tee held an explorato­ry hear­ing on how to address the big prob­lems of wage theft and safe­ty haz­ards in the state’s con­struc­tion indus­try. And per­haps unex­pect­ed­ly, both busi­ness and labor rep­re­sen­ta­tives took the stand to argue for the same thing: increased regulation.

It’s the Wild West,” says Stan Marek, CEO of Marek Broth­ers, in an inter­view with In These Times. Marek, who tes­ti­fied at the April 22 hear­ing, con­tin­ues, You just basi­cal­ly put the word out how many men you need, they show up on your job, you tell them you’re going to pay them as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors. In Texas, you can get them to sign a waiv­er to give up their right to worker’s com­pen­sa­tion if [they get] hurt. That’s legal in Texas.”

When employ­ers mis­clas­si­fy their employ­ees as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors, a cat­e­go­ry meant for self-employed work­ers who can set their own hours and sched­ule, it is con­sid­ered pay­roll fraud. It is also, how­ev­er, one of the most com­mon forms of wage theft in the coun­try. Among oth­er rights, it strips employ­ees of min­i­mum wage, over­time pay and work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion — already a rar­i­ty in Texas, the only state that does not require employ­ers of any size to car­ry work­place insur­ance. All in all, half a mil­lion work­ers there have no finan­cial safe­ty net in case of injury on the job.

And injuries do occur. Per­haps because of a dearth of prop­er safe­ty train­ing, Texas has the high­est death rate of any con­struc­tion indus­try in the coun­try. Chris­t­ian Hur­ta­do, a con­struc­tion work­er who also tes­ti­fied at the April hear­ing, tells In These Times that the he con­sid­ers the state the worst place in mind to work in con­struc­tion.” Hurtado’s father died from a fall while work­ing on a con­struc­tion project in Austin; Hur­ta­do him­self says he’s had sev­er­al close calls. 

With these prob­lems in mind, Marek, Hur­ta­do and oth­ers tes­ti­fied at the hear­ing in favor of manda­to­ry work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion and tougher laws against mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion in the industry.

In addi­tion to more gen­er­al strate­gies, Marek pro­mot­ed a pri­vate-sec­tor solu­tion: a 1‑year-old ini­tia­tive called Con­struc­tion Career Col­lab­o­ra­tive (C3). C3 is an asso­ci­a­tion of social­ly respon­si­ble” own­ers and con­trac­tors that offers accred­i­ta­tion to com­pa­nies who meet their stan­dards, includ­ing work­er and con­trac­tor safe­ty train­ing, craft train­ing, and fair wages for workers. 

For Marek, who was instru­men­tal in cre­at­ing C3 and whose com­pa­ny has rep­re­sen­ta­tion on C3’s board, C3’s focus on improv­ing con­di­tions for Tex­an employ­ees is about build­ing a sus­tain­able workforce. 

Kids aren’t going to go into con­struc­tion work­ing as an inde­pen­dent sub­con­trac­tor respon­si­ble for their own tax­es, not get­ting over­time, not hav­ing a career. They’re not going to do that,” he says. One of these days, own­ers and con­trac­tors are going to wake up and say Hey, we don’t have any more labor! What are we going to do?’ Well, you’ve got to fix the model.”

Marek makes sure to note that he’s a free-mar­ket guy,” but that for him, in addi­tion to improv­ing the indus­try, imple­ment­ing reforms is a moral issue and a social jus­tice issue.” 

The AFL-CIO loves what we’re doing,” he con­tin­ues. We’re basi­cal­ly doing some­thing that the unions would be doing if they had the power.”

The Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Trades Depart­ment of the AFL-CIO (BCTD) was also at the hear­ing last week, tes­ti­fy­ing side-by-side with busi­ness inter­ests. There, true to Marek’s word, Michael Cun­ning­ham, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Texas state coun­cil of the BCTD, called for the same reforms as C3: manda­to­ry worker’s com­pen­sa­tion and stricter leg­is­la­tion against work­er mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion in the pri­vate sector.

Although love” is not a word that comes up when Cun­ning­ham talks about C3’s role in reform­ing the con­struc­tion indus­try, he says that they have all come to agree­ment on cer­tain things, on enforce­ment and things like that.” He notes that Robert Cross, who directs a union appren­tice­ship pro­gram in the Hous­ton area, also serves on C3’s Craft Train­ing Com­mit­tee. Accord­ing to Cun­ning­ham, when it comes to C3, The ques­tion is, How do we get more unions involved?’”

Unions do some things well that we need, which is train­ing,” says Chuck Gremil­lion, exec­u­tive direc­tor of C3. C3 does not pro­vide train­ing; we’re a con­duit for train­ing. We’ll pro­vide direc­tion to peo­ple where they can get train­ing.” He says C3 directs poten­tial work­ers toward union-led train­ing pro­grams if that’s where they could get it.”

Cun­ning­ham points out, how­ev­er, that C3 has close ties with the Asso­ci­at­ed Builders and Con­trac­tors (ABC), which is not a union-friend­ly organization.”

That turns out to be an under­state­ment. ABC is an explic­it­ly anti-union orga­ni­za­tion that endorsed Repub­li­can can­di­date Mitt Rom­ney in the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, has pushed for leg­is­la­tion draft­ed by the right-wing Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil, and oper­ates an issue advo­ca­cy arm” called the Free Enter­prise Alliance whose stat­ed goals are the pro­hi­bi­tion of Union-Only Project Labor Agree­ments, Respon­si­ble Con­trac­tor Ordi­nances, enact­ment of Right-to-Work laws, repeal of the Davis Bacon Act and elim­i­na­tion of bur­den­some reg­u­la­to­ry pro­grams admin­is­tered by the NLRB and OSHA.” A 2012 report fund­ed by BCTD accused ABC of attempt­ing to devel­op a par­al­lel sys­tem of open shop [non-union] train­ing” since the 1970s, pur­su­ing a short-term, low-cost approach.”

Accord­ing to jour­nal­ist David Moberg, ABC has been union-bust­ing” since 1950. In 2012, Moberg report­ed for In These Times that ABC played a key role in unleash­ing the anti-union jug­ger­naut of the past half century.”

The group’s ties with C3 are not adver­tised, but nei­ther are they hard to find. ABC cur­rent­ly has rep­re­sen­ta­tives on C3’s board; in addi­tion, the for­mer direc­tor of edu­ca­tion for ABC-affil­i­at­ed Con­struc­tion and Main­te­nance Edu­ca­tion Foun­da­tion, Kat­ri­na Ker­sch, served as C3’s act­ing exec­u­tive direc­tor for the first six months of the organization’s exis­tence until she was replaced by Chuck Gremil­lion in Feb­ru­ary of this year. Accord­ing to Gremil­lion, ABC was indeed one of many orga­ni­za­tions” involved in form­ing C3, but he says, C3 doesn’t take a stance on union or non-union. In fact, we do have ami­ca­ble dis­cus­sions with them.”

And despite ABC’s his­to­ry of cam­paign­ing against project labor agree­ments — pre-hire col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments that often favor union­ized work­ers — Gremil­lion says that C3 doesn’t take sides on that issue either. He says he would have to see the spe­cif­ic agree­ment,” but that I could tell you what we do stand for, which is that work­ers be paid by the hour, that they’re W2 earn­ers, that they be paid over­time when it’s earned, and that all fed­er­al and state unem­ploy­ment tax­es be paid, and social secu­ri­ty be paid.”

Stephanie Gharakhan­ian of the Work­ers Defense Project (WDP), a Texas work­ers cen­ter that the New York Times once called a union in spir­it,” says that it’s true that unions don’t have much pow­er in the state to push for reforms — so the con­tri­bu­tions of pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions could great­ly help the fight for work­er secu­ri­ty. In her esti­ma­tion, unions only rep­re­sent about 10 per­cent of con­struc­tion employ­ees; there­fore, WDP applaud[s] any efforts to improve from with­in the industry.” 

Amy Price, also of WDP, says that in this case, C3’s advo­ca­cy for impor­tant reforms may out­weigh its poten­tial­ly ques­tion­able con­nec­tions. She says, If we align [with C3] on cer­tain issues, we’ll work with them.”

April 22’s hear­ing on work­er mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion and work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion was held in prepa­ra­tion for the next reg­u­lar ses­sion, which will not begin until Jan­u­ary 2015. How­ev­er, Chair­man René Oliveira said that the com­mit­tee hopes to con­clude hear­ings by the end of this month. Respond­ing to Marek’s tes­ti­mo­ny at the April hear­ing, Oliveira put one option on the table for improv­ing the indus­try: tax incen­tives for com­pa­nies that par­tic­i­pate in C3 or sim­i­lar programs. 

For her part, Gharakhan­ian is opti­mistic” that Texas will soon see some tougher reg­u­la­tion in its con­struc­tion indus­try — regard­less of the spe­cif­ic form such reg­u­la­tion will take.

One of the things that I took away is that I think the com­mit­tee real­ly under­stands that prop­er clas­si­fi­ca­tion is a com­plete gate­way to all of the rights that employ­ees ben­e­fit from,” she says. And I think Chair­man Oliveira in par­tic­u­lar seemed inter­est­ed in explor­ing ways to curb mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion, whether that’s through increased enforce­ment or some oth­er incen­tive regimen.”

For Cun­ning­ham, coop­er­a­tion between labor and the pri­vate sec­tor is a nec­es­sary step toward a safer and more sus­tain­able con­struc­tion indus­try in Texas. Like Stan Marek says, there’s room in this equa­tion for both union and non-union employ­ers,” Cun­ning­ham says. Ulti­mate­ly, he says, the state of the indus­try is killing busi­ness­es and we need to stop it. Maybe C3 is one answer.”

Amien Essif is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times and main­tains a blog called The Gazine, which focus­es on con­sumerism, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and tech­nol­o­gy with a Lud­dite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and Coun­ter­Punch. You can find him using Twit­ter reluc­tant­ly: @AmienChicago
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