By Doug Porter
Accompanied by Congressman Scott Peters, local labor leaders and clergy, a group of ironworkers held a press conference outside the offices of a Japanese-based developer yesterday at an office park north of University City, asking the company to lend an ear to their grievances.
It was an odd setting. The ironworkers weren’t union members, North American Sekisui House (NASH) wasn’t (directly) the employer they were complaining about, and the carefully manicured surroundings certainly were not a construction site.
This location was for now the end of a long road these mostly Latino workers have been following for over two years now, seeking back wages, safe working conditions and respect from California concrete reinforcing contractor Millennium Reinforcing. They followed the money up the contracting chain, ending up here appealing to the people putting up the money for development projects to consider the ethics of the companies they hire to build them.
What these workers do involves the metal rods used to strengthen the concrete used for large scale construction projects. Tying rebar, as it’s called in the trade, involves handling heavy materials, working in awkward positions, and repeating the same hand twisting motions over and over.
All of this can lead to serious wear and tear on the body. Injuries occur all too often. Sometimes they’re fatal. Nearly 750 Latino workers were killed from work-related injuries in 2012, averaging more than 14 deaths per week or two deaths every single day of the year, according to data provided by the union.
The stories told at the press conference involved not getting paid for overtime, having their pay rates randomly downsized, long (12 hour plus) days worked without legally mandated breaks, pressure to not report work related injuries and a level of management contempt that sounded like something out of the robber baron era.
These workers have filed suit against Millennium Reinforcing, which works as subcontractor on projects throughout Southern California. Some of them have gone on “strike,” walking off the job–without union representation. They’ve tried to negotiate, to no avail. And now they’re staging press conferences hoping to call attention to their cause.
The Times, They are a-changing
The Iron Workers Union (Real name: International Association of Bridge, Structural Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers) has taken up their cause, even though they’re not members. This is part of a larger change in the labor movement–the fast food workers come to mind– wherein unions are becoming involved in taking up the cause of workers throughout their industries, regardless of representation.
The union and its community allies came to San Diego to ask NASH, a national developer with offices here, to consider the ethical histories of the subcontractors who work on their projects.
NASH is a joint-venture partner of Holland Partner Group (HPG), who is currently subcontracting with Millennium Reinforcing in a Hollywood project. Millennium has worked on projects throughout the region, including Colbalt’s Archstone Apartments in Mission Gorge.
A delegation of workers and supporters went inside the offices after the press conference to hand deliver a letter asking for consideration in this matter. NASH shares space with developer Newland Communities, and there was no receptionist in the outer office. (But there was a sign with instructions for process servers…hmmmm)
Eventually a frightened-looking woman appeared from the back to talk with the group, which included Richard Barerra, Secretary-Treasurer/CEO San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council and Father Don Greene, with the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice. She told the group that her position as an accountant (!) with the company meant all she could do was to forward the letter up the management chain of command.
There Ought to Be a Law
All this drama shouldn’t have been necessary. After all, this is California, this is the twenty-first century. We’re constantly told by the corporate media that workers’ rights trump everybody else’s in the Golden State. There are laws in place that prevent companies from treating their employees so poorly, right? Wrong.
Welcome to the world of wage theft, a burgeoning industry in the era of trickle down.
An essay from Fair Warning, a non-profit that reports on public health, safety and environmental issues, describes just how things really are these days:
Over the last few years employers ranging from baseball’s San Francisco Giants to Subway franchises to Farmers Insurance have been cited for wage violations. More often, though, wage abuses are not reported by victims or punished by authorities despite being routine in some low-wage industries.
“If you steal from your employer, you’re going to be hauled out of the workplace in handcuffs,” said Kim Bobo, a Chicago workers rights advocate and author. “But if your employer steals from you, you’ll be lucky to get your money back.
Among workers who actually pursued and won a wage theft claim before the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), 83 percent still never got their money. Six of every 10 California businesses found liable for wage theft simply evaporate, choosing to “suspend, forfeit, cancel, or dissolve their businesses, making it more difficult for employees to collect the wages they are owed,” a press release on the study said. Out of the total amount of unpaid wages the DLSE mandated be repaid in the three-year window – $282 million – just 15 percent ever actually got paid out.
Behind the numbers, of course, are human stories. A janitor the report identifies only as L.C. won a judgment from the state that she was owed $12,000. She’s never gotten the money, despite that ruling. “I had to go and find help, asking people to lend me money to cover my rent and bills. There were even days where I had nothing to eat,” L.C. said. “We are constantly told that workers have rights…but it seems that employers have the upper hand in these situations.”
While lawsuits brought by workers at WalMart-leased warehouses, Fedex and fast food franchises have had some success in recent months, the construction industry presents its own unique set of challenges. Workplaces are always shifting, developers shift employment responsibilities to contractors, who in turn pass it on to an endless parade of sub-contractors.
Behold! The Power of the “Job Killer” Mantra
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced legislation (AB 2416) allowing cheated workers to recover back wages by allowing them to slap liens on their employers’ property this year.
The bill made it through the State Assembly and into the cross hairs of the California Chamber of Commerce.
“Job Killer”, “Job Killer” they screamed from the sidelines. The bill was amended prior to reaching the Senate to address various language concerns raised by the Chamber. Those changes weren’t good enough. And I suspect nothing short of withdrawing the legislation would have satisfied them.
Behold the power of the Chamber and their Job Killer fear mongering, via the Sacramento Bee:
An effort to help workers recover back wages by allowing them to slap liens on their employers’ property failed Thursday in the California Senate when numerous Democrats withheld their votes….
…The bill failed when it received only 13 yes votes, leaving the measure eight votes short of passage.
Note that the Senate Democrats didn’t actually vote against AB 2416, they just didn’t vote FOR it.
A Rotten Low Income Housing Deal
In other news, Jerry Sanders and the Chamber of Commerce (posing as the Jobs Coalition) have successfully negotiated a deal that’s not really a deal on fees paid by commercial developers to pay for affordable housing projects.
Although the City Council’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee split on endorsing the proposal, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf invoked her powers as committee chair to move it up the ladder for full council consideration, most likely in November.
While the proposal, currently being considered as a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU), appears to increase income for low income housing, there is a loophole built in cancelling increased fees if “modest reforms” (Chamber-speak for developer nirvana) aren’t enacted by 2017.
Bruce Resnick, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, told committee members that the MOU is not a good deal for the city, which has a waiting list of 45,000 people looking for affordable housing.
“It is a short term mandate with long-term serious repercussions that can set affordable housing back in the region,” Resnick said. “The exemptions in this proposal, as Ms. Tevlin pointed out, are permanent, while the increase is temporary.”
On This Day:1908 – The first production Ford Model T left the Piquette Plant in Detroit, Mich. It was the first car ever manufactured on an assembly line, with interchangeable parts 1960 – The first televised debate between presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy took place in Chicago 1975 – “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” opened in theaters.
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