IssuesStatewide NewsLabor Day Overview: A Look at the Progressive Worker’s Defense Project

The Workers Defense Project has drawn increased scrutiny with its involvement in labor initiatives across Texas and questions over its tax status.
September 2, 2019
When Harris County adopted a series of requirements last week for construction contractors, Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted “This. Is. Huge.”

The requirements include a $15 per hour minimum wage, mandatory safety training, and adding employee healthcare and safety records as considerations to the bid-awarding process for construction contracts.

A similar litany of requirements has been implemented in Austin, while paid sick leave ordinances for businesses have been adopted in Austin (which is currently held up in court), Dallas (which is facing a lawsuit), and San Antonio (which was delayed after threat of lawsuit) — each after waves of pressure applied by outside groups.

One such group that is spearheading these efforts in Texas is the Worker’s Defense Project (WDP), an entity known as a “worker center.”

In tandem with its political arm, Workers Defense Action Fund, the organization builds a coalition to lobby cities and counties into adopting ordinances that “empower low-income workers to achieve fair employment through education, direct services, organizing and strategic partnerships.”

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If this sounds like a lot like the goals of a labor union, then that’s because it is.

Opponents of these workers centers (WDP being the most prominent in Texas) describe them as “labor union front groups that protest and organize for higher wages, labor mandates, and larger benefits packages.”

The concept behind the modern workers’ centers can be traced back to the turn of the millennium in Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Warriors (CIW) who pressured tomato growers into raising wages 75 percent for their employees. To accomplish this, CIW launched a boycott against Taco Bell demanding they only purchase tomatoes from suppliers who met their requirements.

This model of targeted boycotts and public relations campaigns became extremely effective with CIW and was exported to different states.

The model found a foothold in Texas’ construction industry — half of which’s employees are illegal immigrants according to a 2013 University of Texas/WDP study — and has since spearheaded policy changes in three of its largest cities.

Pushing for workers’ concerns against the will of management, and being rather successful at it, has resulted in some notoriety for its employees. So much so that in 2015 it launched former policy director Greg Casar into Austin’s city council and now its co-founder, Christina Tzintzún Ramirez, has entered the crowded Democratic primary field for U.S. Senate.

WDP is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Recently, it was slapped with a Department of Labor complaint alleging WDP has been violating its tax status. The complainant — Alliance for Economic Freedom — believes WDP has been acting as a union while effectively engaging in collective bargaining, which is prohibited for a non-profit organization.

The makeup of WDP’s board and leadership council consists of people from many different organizations, companies, occupations, and, yes, unions. Six out of WDP’s 13 leadership council members are directly listed as members of unions. Notably, the president and executive vice president of Texas’ AFL-CIO — Rick Levy and Tefere Gebre, respectively — serve on the leadership council.

Unions are subject to more stringent requirements than non-profits, such as stricter financial reporting requirements. If the Department of Labor rules that what WDP is doing constitutes as labor organizing, they will have to backdate all financials from the moment it is determined that the organization began such practices.

Former Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta stated publicly his intention to crack down on workers centers and the “loophole” they operate from. 

However, Acosta resigned last month after his involvement in Jeffrey Epstein’s 2007 plea deal. 

President Trump’s new nominee for labor secretary, Eugene Scalia, has not been confirmed yet. And a change in leadership could lead to a change in focus on worker centers.

Workers Defense Project did not return a request for comment.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.