Alvaro poses for a portrait outside the Midline Apartments building Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. Property management company Yellow Tree had hired him to work on the Midline Apartments project, where he experienced wage theft. Photo by Nicole Neri.
In 2021, Alvaro Chavez took a job doing wood framing for a new apartment complex in Saint Paul. The project was funded by Paster Properties, a prominent Saint Paul developer whose stated mission is “placemaking that strengthens communities.” But Chavez’s check came from Strong Framing, a nonunion subcontractor. When Strong Framing failed to pay Chavez for four weeks of work — $3,500 — figuring out who might pay was maddening: Strong Framing had been hired by U.S. Framing, which had been hired by the general contractor, Yellow Tree, which had been hired by Paster.
For decades, the combination of weak labor law enforcement, complicated hiring systems and profiteering contractors has left nonunion construction workers like Chavez — who make up 88% of the country’s 8.7 million people in construction — with little recourse when cheated at work. Rather than fight each case one by one, a worker’s center, three labor unions and community groups tried a new approach. Last fall, they began a campaign in Minneapolis-Saint Paul to stop mistreatment of all construction workers, union or not, on their own.
The Building Dignity and Respect campaign offers a template to engage the vast majority of construction workers who are not organized. The campaign’s strategy is to target the developers of projects, rather than the dicey subcontractors signing the checks. Aiming high, say organizers, is key to the campaign: If the big firms will work only with subcontractors who honor their agreements with workers, there’s not much advantage to cheating workers in the first place.
The campaign’s roots go back to 2016, when the worker’s center, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha (CTUL), worked with SEIU, the nation’s second largest union, to organize 600 Target and Macy’s janitors in the Twin Cities, says Burt Johnson, general counsel for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. He was impressed with their work and reached out. Then, in 2019, CTUL and the Carpenters helped organize workers to file suit in a landmark labor trafficking case for the region. A subcontractor, Ricardo Batres, had hired undocumented workers and threatened to turn them into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they complained about workplace abuses. He pleaded guilty to labor trafficking and insurance fraud charges — the first case of its kind in Hennepin County. (Labor trafficking occurs “when an employer compels a worker — using force, fraud, or coercion — to perform labor that is involuntary,” per a 2019 report from the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network.)
To activists, the case showed that change might be possible, including in areas beyond trafficking. According to a CTUL survey of 76 local workers, about half have experienced wage theft. Sometimes that means having paychecks withheld, not being paid overtime or being paid less than the minimum wage. Other times, it means misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which excludes them from workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. Nonunion construction workers across the U.S. are frequent victims of wage theft and misclassification. Indeed, even with the slow pace of labor law enforcement, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recorded nearly $33 million in back wages owed to construction workers in 2022 — more than any other “low-wage, high-violation” industry.
Those concerns ended up making headlines last year when 25 workers filed claims totaling over $100,000 in wage theft against subcontractors on a 200-plus acre development tied to the Minnesota Vikings. (Marketing materials claim the project is held to the “highest standards of character, integrity and commitment.”) On the same project, a woman reported she was sexually abused on the job only for her boss to tell her it was consensual.
Soon, CTUL and several neighborhood groups were talking with three local construction unions — the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) in Minnesota and North Dakota and the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council.
In May 2022, the joint campaign by the construction unions and CTUL took off. Kevin Pranis, marketing manager of the Great Lakes Regional Organizing Committee for LIUNA, said that even his union’s workers benefit when nonunion jobs pay well. “When bad actors come into a market, jobs that [union] members used to do are suddenly going to workers who are getting paid a fraction,” he said. Raising the lowest wage, goes the thinking, makes everyone’s job better.
The Building Dignity and Respect campaign is new to construction but it’s based on a successful model called the Fair Food Program. Activists persuaded fast-food chains and supermarkets to sign on by linking the products of big brands like McDonald’s and Walmart with “modern day slavery.” Now considered a “worker driven social responsibility” project, the Fair Food Program requires corporate buyers to source produce only from growers who provide decent jobs — and comply with independent monitoring and enforcement that assure job standards are met. Since the program began in 2011, workers’ pay has increased as much as twofold, and program data indicates that 82% of worker complaints are addressed within a month.
Borrowing from the Fair Food Program made sense, say organizers of the Minnesota campaign, because farm fields have a lot in common with nonunion building sites: big corporations with deep pockets, smaller companies doing most of the work, contracts awarded on price — and workers with little recourse against abuse. If the campaign succeeds, developers will sign a code of conduct that they’d then require their contractors to follow. An independent, worker-run nonprofit, the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council, will educate workers on their rights, ensure that any participating contractor follows the rules — and enforce penalties, which can include cancellation of a contract. Under the program, workers will get mandated breaks; receive at least two guaranteed payments per month; and earn at least $20 an hour, above the $15.19 an hour minimum wage in Minneapolis but well below the $33 an hour average (as of 2019) for a skilled construction worker. Most of all, the program threatens subcontractors with the same thing that currently pushes them to cheat workers: If they don’t do it, they could lose business.
Still, the Fair Food Campaign had an advantage that the Minnesota one does not. McDonald’s depended on positive public opinion; linking its brand to shameful conditions hurt the bottom line. The profits of developers and big contractors, by comparison, hardly depend on public opinion at all.
Last summer, the Minnesota campaign began pushing three Twin Cities developers to join the program: Solhem, United Properties and Yellow Tree — the company that, as a general contractor, had hired the subcontractor that withheld Alvaro Chavez’s pay. None of the developers is widely known outside of their industry. But, last fall, CTUL made its first approach to a group its leaders thought could carry weight with developers: a neighborhood association.
Solhem had announced a project in the Northeast Park section of Minneapolis, so workers organizing with CTUL got in touch with local residents. Soon after, the Northeast Park Neighborhood Association invited Solhem and CTUL to a meeting, where each could make its case.
“We’ve supported development in our community,” said Kate Kottenbrock, the association’s board chair. “Knowing what’s been happening with workers on work sites… it’s just become a major issue to the folks in our small neighborhood.” In the spring, NEPNA issued a public statement saying they would only support projects in their neighborhood if developers signed agreements with Building Dignity and Respect.
For Alvaro Chavez, the need for something like Building Dignity and Respect is clear in the absence of state enforcement. Although he is a recent immigrant from Honduras, Chavez didn’t need to know much about American labor law to know he needed help. Last February, about six months after he got stiffed, the Carpenters and CTUL helped Chavez make a complaint to the Department of Labor and Industry; CTUL helped him file a lien against the subcontractor, too.
Only one of these approaches worked. Eventually, the lien prompted Yellow Tree, the general contractor, to pay Chavez the $3,500 he was owed. That process took over a year — and carried none of the penalties that accompany a formal violation, or that might discourage the practice in the future. But it was better than the alternative. Eighteen months after filing the complaint, Chavez is still waiting for the Department of Labor and Industry to address it.
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