Nick Wertsch: Lessons from KI Inspire Worker Victory in Harris County, Texas

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A year after I departed from the Kalmanovitz Initiative to take up work as a staff attorney with the Worker Defense Project in Houston, I find that my KI experience continues to resonate. Workers Defense is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to building power with low-wage workers in Texas, and about a month ago Workers Defense and our labor and community allies won a game-changing set of workers’ rights policies in the third largest county in the country. That victory took me back to my work at Georgetown.

Our team at Workers Defense spent months organizing and advocating at the Harris County Commissioners Court, which sets policy for the county within which Houston is located. Workers Defense worker members testified to the Commissioners Court and the public about the importance of treating workers with dignity and how the County could fight wage theft.

On August 27, the Commissioners Court voted in favor of eight policies that will provide thousands of workers with safer and better-paying jobs on Harris County construction projects. The policies include:

  • $15 per hour living wage requirement for all workers on Harris County building construction projects (including subcontracted workers)
  • Higher safety standards such as OSHA 10 training for workers and OSHA 30 training for supervisors
  • Expansion of workforce training and hiring opportunities for marginalized communities
  • Requirements that the County evaluate bids by construction contractors based on their safety record and whether they provide health insurance to their workers

This marks the first time that any county in Texas has set a wage floor of $15 per hour for county construction. It will be only the second time that a county in Texas has set higher safety standards for construction workers – protections that are badly needed in the deadliest state for construction workers and the only state that does not require workers’ compensation insurance for private employers.
And we have won all of this just as Harris County is about to start massive new affordable housing construction projects with hundreds of millions of federal recovery dollars.

As I sat in the Harris County Commissioners Court during their vote to pass these workers’ rights policies, I found myself thinking about Georgetown University’s Just Employment Policy (JEP). As the KI’s organizing director, I had served on Georgetown’s Advisory Committee on Business Practices (ACBP), which helps enforce the JEP, and so I came to know it very well. The policy recently approved by Harris County carries many of the same core principles as the JEP, such as setting a “living wage” for all workers, regardless of whether they are direct employees (of the county or university) or subcontracted workers, and guaranteeing the “right to a safe and harassment-free work environment.” These kinds of policies are what would have made a difference for Workers Defense members like Maynor Alvarez Cúa, who worked on construction sites where his wages were stolen and where unsafe conditions led to worker injuries.

There are two more important connections between the JEP that Georgetown adopted back in 2005 and the policies Harris County voted to adopt in 2019.

First, these policies demonstrate the economic and political power that an anchor institution – like a university or a county government – can have on the lives of working people. Big, place-based organizations that are among the largest employers and purchasers of goods and services in a region wield an enormous amount of influence. The Georgetown and Harris County policies demonstrate how an anchor institution can set standards for not only its own direct employees but for all of the many subcontracted workers on a university campus or a county construction site. When anchor institutions makes a policy to only do business with other entities that pay their workers a living wage and provide safe working conditions – and when they write these requirements into contract language with service providers – it has a ripple effect. An anchor institution’s direct employees and subcontracted workers immediately reap the benefits of these workers’ rights policies, but even workers who do not have a direct connection to university or county work may see improvements in pay and safety on their worksites as their employers raise wages to retain their workforce and adopt new business norms.

Second, Georgetown and Harris County’s policies demonstrate the possibility for labor and community groups to leverage an institution’s power to help workers. Institutions do not naturally start out by centering the needs of workers or vulnerable communities.

But when labor, community groups, and the people directly affected by workplace injustice organize together, they can move these powerful institutions to support economic justice, such as setting wage floors in line with living wage rates for the area and requiring safety training for vulnerable worker populations.

Georgetown’s JEP exists in large part because students and workers organized the university into adopting it, and the JEP has provided those communities the chance to win other victories on behalf of workers. In Harris County, it was the organizing efforts of worker centers, unions, and community groups that paved the way for a more expansive set of standards and protections at the County level.

As we continue to organize together in Houston, we hope these Harris County policies will be the foundation for many more worker victories to come, so that workers like Maynor can have a better chance at a safe and fair job. But even as we celebrate what has been accomplished in Harris County, we know that simply enacting a progressive policy is not enough. As has been the case at Georgetown, we know that without robust and independent monitoring and enforcement, the county’s new labor standards and workforce protections will be empty promises to working communities, and many workers outside of Harris County’s construction projects are still not covered by these policies.

Maynor summed this up best when he was interviewed about the policy victory the day after the vote at Commissioners Court: “It’s going to make a great impact on the families of construction workers, [but] these standards need to be fulfilled so they are more than just words.”

Nick Wertsch served as KI’s Organizing Director until May 2018. He now works as a staff attorney with the Worker Defense Project in Houston.