Photo by AP/Wideworld
Protestors dropped coffins outside the Texas state capitol this summer to remember construction workers killed on the job.

Lapses in jobsite safety, low pay, "wage-stiffing" and employer-employee language barriers are spurring the creation and expansion of worker centers—non-profit organizations that serve as advocates for immigrant, minority, non-union and other construction workers.

Backed by foundations and other sources, worker centers have been scoring successes in providing Latino, African-American and other workers occupational safety training and information about their rights in an increasing number of U.S. metropolitan areas. The centers also are pressing local governments, developers and owners, such as Apple, to ensure a substantial role—as well as higher-than-normal wages and safer jobsites—for the construction industry's largely forgotten underclass.

"There are now close to 400 worker centers in the U.S.," many of them broad-based in their scope and an increasing number with at least some involvement in construction, says Lola Smallwood Cuevas, director at the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and project director at the University of California at Los Angeles' Center for Labor Research & Education. She says the Los Angeles worker center provides a place where minority workers "can come together to learn about their rights and about safety and to discuss ways to improve conditions in their community."

Cuevas says that, in addition to providing jobsite safety training and serving as a worker advocate in disputes with employers, the center presses for project labor agreements that require substantial involvement by workers from nearby low-income communities.

Clawing Back From Recession

For decades, African-Americans, other minorities and women have been underrepresented in Southern California building-trade unions, Cuevas says, adding that, while organized labor had been making efforts to make its apprenticeship programs more inclusive, the economic downturn dramatically slowed the pace of that progress.

She believes that, as the economy rebounds—and as hospital, subway and other projects with local hiring requirements get under way—apprenticeship and union-job opportunities for underrepresented workers will begin to increase.

"If you're a union member, you receive safety training, and you know that when you work you will be paid," says Adam Kader, director of Arise Chicago, a worker center. He adds, however, that immigrant and minority workers hired by non-union contractors for low-skill, low-wage work are often exploited and, without worker centers, would have nowhere to turn.

Kader says Arise Chicago educates workers in construction and other industries about their basic rights regarding jobsite safety and pay and provide safety training in both English and Spanish. "We're clearly filling a need," he says.

And worker centers are not just active in the nation's big cities. Abbie Kretz, senior organizer for the Omaha-based Heartland Workers Center, says many Latinos work in construction, meatpacking and other industries in the Great Plains, almost always without the jobsite safety and fair wages that union membership would provide.