More than 20 years ago, Workers Defense Project (WDP) started as a wage theft clinic in the broom closet of an immigrant and refugee shelter in response to the pervasive and prevalent issue of shelter residents having wages stolen by their employers, especially while working jobs in construction.

Since 2002, Texas-based WDP has built a statewide organization of 5,800 members who are overwhelmingly low-wage Latinx immigrant construction workers and their families. The organization uses a unique member-led model combining direct legal services, community organizing, policy advocacy, and a member-conceived Better Builder corporate social responsibility program to win better working conditions and policies that benefit immigrant families and workers. 

WDP’s grants manager Marina Roberts shares more information below.

Q. What are the most pressing issues in Texas that donors should understand?

Texas is the deadliest state for workers in the U.S. Here, more workers die on the job than in any other state, and a construction worker dies while working every three days. The majority of the state’s construction labor force are immigrants who face exploitation from employers in the form of wage theft, dangerous working conditions, and other labor law violations that too often go unchecked. Whenever workers take action seeking accountability for these injustices, they do so at the peril of their employer retaliating by calling Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) leading to deportation – a common practice. Climate crisis drives even more unsafe working conditions, as workers labor outdoors or in unventilated spaces in extreme heat without rest breaks or workers’ compensation (Texas is the only state in the union not to mandate employers provide workers’ compensation). 

Texas industries, like construction, have a collective stranglehold on state government. Combined with real estate, the construction industry is the second largest contributor to conservative political campaigns in the state after oil and gas. Given these industries engage in rampant wage theft and routinely cut corners with respect to safety, it is especially onerous that profits generated from such unscrupulous enterprises are then funneled into political activities that harm and oppress the workers whose exploitation is foundational to their creation. Through our family of organizations, we work alongside our worker members to right this injustice through collective action, innovative campaigns, and systemic change.

Q. What efforts are you most proud of? What are your biggest challenges?

It’s impossible to overstate the sense of power this work imparts onto our members; whether through civic engagement and electoral work, labor campaigns, or efforts aimed at impacting immigration policy, we are deeply proud of how our commitment to member leadership has bolstered this sense of power. 

Photo credit: Pamela de Marion Silva Diaz

One example of this is our Committee on Political Education through which members engage deeply with the political process by learning about how elections work, hosting actions, lobbying members of the state legislature, and participating in the political education of others. Further, it was through our commitment to member leadership and year-round civic engagement that the nation’s first Essential Workers Board was established in Harris County by a coalition of organizations of which WDP was the group administrator. This Board (on which several WDP members are currently serving) enables frontline workers to advise county commissioners on workplace health and safety policy, generating a significant impact on the lives of essential workers by leveraging an innovative co-governance model. 

The most significant challenges we face are structural. There is a lack of:

  • Legal structure designed to protect workers or hold abusive employers accountable; 
  • Immigration structure that makes equal protection under the law possible for our members;
  • Civic engagement structure that actively encourages and facilitates the engagement of all residents equally.

Because our members are so commonly failed by the structures that govern their lives, we have to think outside the limitations of those structures. Our solution is to engage our members to innovate and imagine the processes and systems that truly would serve them, and then to take collective action to make those systems a reality.

Q. Workers Defense Action Fund (WDAF) [501(c)(4)] focuses on year-round civic engagement. Why has this been an effective approach to your work?

Year-round civic engagement is key to building and maintaining grassroots power for the specific communities with whom we work, chiefly because anyone can be civically engaged, regardless of immigration status or whether they are able to vote. 

Doing this work year-round is crucial because it takes a great deal of time and effort to organize low-wage workers and immigrant families, who have to navigate many hurdles including language barriers, lack of education, long commutes, and childcare demands that make attending meetings difficult. We have found that investing resources into these communities prior to an election is key to their ability to successfully engage with an election, and we have also found that outside of election season we are able to continue to enact critical change through the work of our members so long as they are properly equipped with knowledge, resources, and support. 

Further, this work builds on itself – WDAF’s civic engagement work intersects with WDP’s policy and organizing work, allowing our members and workers in general to remain engaged in the political process as there are no “off years” during which work ceases. Our long-term efforts offer workers and immigrant families the opportunity to constantly reimagine what our state could be, and we believe their ability to think creatively about the possibility of a better future is essential to making that future real. 

Q. What advice would you give donors interested in supporting workers’ rights?

We emphatically advise donors interested in supporting workers’ rights to seek out organizations that are member-led by workers, because the closer funding gets to the hands of workers the more likely it is to be used in a manner that truly advances their goals and addresses their needs. We believe workers and their families should be involved in the decisions that affect their lives, and so we structurally support member leadership and follow the direction set by this community in selecting priorities, campaigns, and goals for the organization.