We are members of the North Texas Jobs with Justice Workers’ Rights Board. The Board is composed of concerned community leaders, including clergy, social workers, academics, labor organizers, teachers, students and lawyers. Workers’ Rights Boards review worker complaints and conduct hearings, giving employers the chance to respond. Boards, like the one in Dallas, can act as mediators between employees with unresolved grievances and employers who may be too focused on their company’s profit margin.
Last fall, we were alerted to the struggle of workers employed by Great Western Erectors. Great Western Erectors (GWE) is based in Dallas and is one of the largest rebar and concrete reinforcing contractors in the nation. Our Workers’ Rights Board assembled to hear testimony of workers and to begin the process of connecting with employers. Previously, groups of workers had met with GWE, hoping to have problems of safety and adequate water addressed by their management. Workers attempting to organize to gain rights were threatened with loss of job and blacklisting. The GWE workers had become discouraged and were interested in finding new ways to get their on-the-job needs met.
Hearing their stories of lack of adequate water, verbal abuse and being forced (against OSHA standards) to buy their own safety equipment was sobering and motivating. Learning that they were not treated when injured on the job, that they worked in fear of falling due to unstable scaffolding and that little safety training was offered…well, that left us feeling angry.
Following the hearing, the Workers Rights’ Board began to discern how best to intervene between workers with complaints and their employer. Because GWE had been unresponsive, we decided to contact GWE’s “employer”, Austin Industries. Great Western Erector is hired as a subcontractor by Austin Industries in Dallas. The Austin Industries website notes that:
“Austin Industries maintains a healthy, competitive and trust-based relationship with our subcontractors. We believe fair treatment and trust must be reciprocal to maintain a quality relationship.”
Encouraged by this statement, we wrote a letter to Austin Industries, appealing to them to use their influence to improve working conditions for their subcontracted employees. We respectfully requested a meeting with them to discuss how best to meet the needs of employees and employers. We received no response to the letter, or to subsequent follow up letters. Numerous phone calls to Austin Industries went unreturned, as well. When a Workers’ Rights Board member eventually made phone contact with an Austin Industries representative, she was told they were powerless to change the working conditions for their subcontracted employees.
A follow up hearing this summer revealed that iron workers in Dallas are still subjected to inadequate water and unsafe working conditions. The discussion continues between the workers and the Workers’ Rights Board. Justice and fairness for all are our goals. Austin Industries, we invite you to join us at the table.
--Dana Pyke and Rosemarie Rieger