Facing Race Spotlight: Labor Activist Cristina Tzintzún

By Aura Bogado Nov 07, 2014

Cristina Tzintzún is the executive director of the Austin-based Workers Defense Project (WDP), a statewide workers’ rights organization. WDP works to improve working conditions for low-wage workers who are mostly Latino and undocumented. The group fights for small and broad victories at the municipal and state level in Texas–a place that isn’t exactly friendly to workers and immigrants.

On November 15 in Dallas, Tzintzún will talk about the organizing in the South at Facing Race, the biennial conference held by Race Forward, Colorlines’ publisher. Colorlines caught up with Tzintzún to get an idea of what it’s like to fight–and win–in Texas.

How did the Workers Defense Project get started?

The organization got started 10 years ago because workers weren’t being paid for their work–especially those working in construction. It began as a legal service project and has since grown to do community organizing and policy advocacy that addresses the real needs of workers in Texas. We’re not a labor union, but we do work like unions in the sense that we’re trying to raise standards for workers. We’ve [gotten policies passed] at the local and state level that better protect the rights of thousands of workers–from winning construction workers higher wages to making sure they have paid rest breaks. We also address the fact that Texas is the most deadly place to work in the country. Most of the folks who have been dying in the construction industry are immigrants and people of color and we’re trying to change that.

Can you talk about why construction workers face so much peril in Texas?

Texas is the fastest growing state in the country, which means we have a huge need for construction workers. In other parts of the country construction jobs can be and are blue-collar jobs. But that isn’t the case in Texas. Many workers work full time but still live below the poverty line. In Texas, the largest employer of undocumented labor is the construction industry. It’s estimated that at least 50 percent of the workforce is undocumented; that’s close to 1 million workers. [Being undocumented] means they’re more likely to have their rights violated, to not be paid for their work, to earn below the minimum wage and to die on the job.

Can you explain how this kind of wage theft happens?

I think it’s really hard for some people to imagine. If you go out to do a certain job, you expect to get paid at the end of the day. But for one in five construction workers in Texas experience wage theft. That means they’re not getting paid minimum wage or overtime–or they’re most frequently not paid anything at all. This is especially common for undocumented workers because employers think they can get away it even though workers have the same rights, regardless of immigration status.

Talk about the work that you’re doing to protect workers from wage theft.

Our organization worked to pass a law that criminalizes wage theft–it makes it a crime. Employers can actually be arrested for not paying their workers. It’s a statewide law that [that] has been implemented in major municipalities. Just this last year, for the first time, places like El Paso started to see employers being arrested for not paying their workers. I think that’s important, especially for undocumented workers, to know they have the law on their side. Oftentimes, immigrant communities are afraid of the police and don’t feel like the police service their needs. And this is an opportunity for the police to show that they’re addressing the issues that low-wage workers face.

How did you go about this work?

Workers Defense Project helped draft the legislation and helped coordinate a statewide coalition of community groups, labor unions and faith partners to push and pass the legislation. Texas is a really hard place to organize for workers and immigrant rights. It requires you to be more creative, and it also means that you have to make unusual partnerships, whether [they’re with] folks from the business community or conservative faith partners. We try to cross lines that are outside of our comfort zones and we’re willing to work with anyone who’s willing to work with us. We also use really good data and [make] sure [it’s] also accompanied by people who are directly impacted telling their stories and are willing to stand up even in a really hostile political climate.

What is Workers Defense Project currently working on?

Progressives in Texas have often been on the defensive. We’ve passed very progressive legislation at the local level and we know that at the state level we’ll see bills that will try to pre-empt or make it illegal for those other bills we’ve helped pass to exist. So we have a defensive strategy to make sure that that doesn’t happen. But we [also] have an offensive strategy to push for broader legislation to protect workers–whether it’s for rest breaks, more safety training or for more tools that that allow for workers who aren’t getting paid to defend their rights.

There is no federal or state law in Texas that mandates that workers have rest breaks–including those who work outside. Texas can get incredibly hot. Facing Race is happening in Dallas, which is one of the hottest cities in Texas. It gets well past 100 degrees in the summer every single days and workers are outside, working 10-, 12- and 14-hour days without the legal right to a work. Right now, we’re asking the city of Dallas to pass an ordinance that would give 225,000 construction workers the right to paid rest breaks. It’s something that’s very basic but is also very hard to pass because we work in a state where any regulation is seen as creating a non-friendly business climate. We’re just two votes shy on the Dallas City Council to pass that. We’re almost there to see this ordinance pass.

Why Texas? If it’s such an incredibly difficult place to organize in, why is it that you focus your work there?

It’s easier to see workers of color and undocumented workers as disposable. Texas is by far the most deadly place to work in the country. A couple of years ago, at its peak, there was a construction worker dying in the state every two-and-a-half days. California has many more construction workers than we do and they have about a third of the death rate, and they’re number two as far as workers dying. In Texas [the deaths were] overlooked for a really long time. Sometimes there are comments from our legislators that we shouldn’t be worried about the fact that these workers are dying because they’re here "illegally," and therefore shouldn’t have a right to work or to have legal protections. While we’re fighting for worker rights, we’re also fighting for immigrant rights and the rights of people of color.

It’s not a coincidence that the people that we represent–people of color and immigrants–face some of the worst conditions among workers in our state. The South, as well as the United States, has long history and legacy of people fighting back. And we’re building off of that tradition. Even for newly arrived immigrants, we remind folks that the work and organizing and advocacy that they’re doing is something they’re part of that came way before them and that they’re helping carry that work forward.