BROWNSVILLE, September 23 - For six months, Jorge Rubio worked at a local chain of tortilla bakeries and taquerias in the cities of Brownsville and San Benito, both in the very southern tip of Texas.
Rubio, 42, prepared the food, cleaned equipment, served customers. Eventually, he decided to quit after being overworked for months.
On his last day of work this past January, his employer refused to pay him the usual $50 for an 11-hour workday. The employer told Rubio that sales were too low to pay him. A couple months later, Rubio was referred to Fuerza del Valle, a young workers center in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. When center staff took a closer look at his case, they realized he’d been paid only about $4.50 per hour for the entire term of his employment, which is well below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Rubio told me (though a translator) that until then, he hadn’t realized his employer was violating wage standards — that’s what everyone else was making, too. He said he was very bothered that he wasn’t being paid what the law said he should.
So with the help of the workers center, he sent a letter to his former employer, demanding not only his last day’s pay, but all of his back wages. The total came to about $2,300, which doesn’t even include overtime (federal law requires 1.5 times regular wages for each hour above 40 worked in a week). Multiple in-person meetings, two protests and a campaign of leafleting followed the letter, but Rubio has yet to recoup the wages he’s earned. In June, Rubio contacted the Department of Labor, which is expected to launch an investigation into the restaurant chain soon. Today, Rubio is one of a few Fuerza del Valle workers-turned-leaders working in the border county of Cameron.
"It’s important to change the atmosphere of exploitation and make an example to other businesses," said Rubio. "We are building community support in this movement to create a better valley."
A valley in need of change
Fuerza del Valle (Forces of the Valley) launched just two years ago as a response to rampant wage theft. The workers’ center is a project of the RGV Equal Voice Network, a coalition of ten nonprofits working for social change in the Rio Grande Valley, a majority-Hispanic, four-county region on the U.S.-Mexico border that is home to more than one million people, with many more who migrate to the area for seasonal work. The majority of people seeking help to recoup wages are undocumented, said Hector Guzman Lopez, coordinator for Fuerza del Valle and a staffer at the South Texas Civil Rights Project, one of the organizational members of the Equal Voice Network.
He said one of the most common reactions he encounters from undocumented workers is surprise that the protections of wage law apply to them too. From documented workers, the most common response is “I can’t believe this is happening to me. This is America.”
"Wage theft is definitely an epidemic here," Lopez told me. "Usually, everyone I talk to has a story to tell about themselves or someone they know (regarding) unpaid labor. This is bad for everyone because it’s not only money being denied to a particular person, but to our families and our communities. It’s money that’s not circulating in our economies. It’s just wrong to not pay someone for their labor. It’s virtual slavery…we are not being held against our will, but our labor is not being respected and that’s not right."
Fuerza del Valle is a mobile workers center, hosting three know-your-rights legal clinics every week in three different valley cities. During the clinics, center staffers educate newcomers about their rights and meet with people about ongoing wage theft cases. In the last eight months, the workers center has documented more than 150 cases, not only on wage theft, but for injuries on the job, discrimination and unjust firing. The more word gets out about the growing workers center, “the more people feel like they now have a place to go,” Lopez said. In fact, the center just wrapped up a successful wage theft campaign against a sushi restaurant in McAllen, Texas, and the five workers involved got their wages back.
The center’s wage theft process is similar to the efforts of workers centers in Austin, Houston and El Paso. It begins with sending a letter to the employer, followed by phone calls and in-person meetings. Lopez said a staffer from the workers center accompanies a worker during person-to-person meetings to make sure the dynamic doesn’t get abusive, but the negotiation is left up to the worker. (Lopez told me that a lot of the employers he encounters think they can treat workers any way they want, and as you can imagine, threats involving a person’s immigration status are not uncommon — “it’s practically the norm,” Lopez said. He said some bosses threaten to call border control even if a worker was born in the U.S.) If all such efforts fail, the next step is small claims court. In the last eight months, the workers center has helped 30 people recoup their wages.
"We can break the culture of exploitation we have in the Rio Grande Valley," Lopez said. "But it’ll take different sectors of society to be on board to really change things. Wage theft is an issue that affects all of us, so it’ll take all of us to tackle this."
'Suave con la persona, fuerte con el problema'
That’s the mantra Cris Rocha lives by when dealing with bad employers. It means being smooth with the person, but tough with the problem.
"We need to be smooth to the people, even it’s a bad boss, but firm with the problem," she told me through a translator.
Rocha is a community organizer with the valley’s La Unión Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a community union. She’s been dealing with wage theft issues among farmworkers since she began working with LUPE in 1991, when it was United Farmworkers. She said it used to be much riskier for both workers and organizers to confront employers about wage theft (she’s even had a gun pulled on her). But with the new workers center, Rocha said workers are more confident about coming forward and the process for recouping wages is much more efficient.
Over her two decades of organizing in the Rio Grande Valley, she said she’s probably met more than 1,000 workers who’ve experienced wage theft. In addition to simply refusing to pay outright or paying substandard wages, she said a common tactic among employers is accusing a farmworker of picking less produce than he or she claimed. The discrepancy is difficult for workers to prove, so Rocha often teaches them how to start keeping their own written records.
In the last four years, the number of wage theft complaints Rocha encounters has been on the rise. She said she believes the increase isn’t only due to more people coming forward; the problem is actually getting worse. Today, she helps to spread word of Fuerza del Valle and mobilize workers against wage theft in the valley’s colonias, which are among the most impoverished communities in the United States; oftentimes, they have no pavement, no public waste service, no public street lights.
"I’m optimistic because every time we do recoup wages, it encourages me to continue," she said. "But we need more support because there’s no security for workers at all."
According to a June 2012 report on wage theft from the Progressive States Network, wage theft is no minor problem:
"Wage theft, or the systemic non-payment of wages, is a problem affecting millions of workers across the country. Over 60 percent of low-wage workers suffer wage violations each week. As a result, they lose 15% of their earnings each year, on average. The vast majority of these workers are over the age of twenty-five, and most are supporting at least one child."
The report notes that wage theft has a “serious impact on state revenues, amounting to billions of dollars per year in tax and payroll fraud.” The report’s authors give Texas a failing grade on all counts when it comes wage theft — Fs in accessing justice, transparency and accountability, and securing justice. The dismal score is even more of a letdown considering a new statewide statute that took effect in 2011 that puts in place serious consequences, such as fines and jail time, for Texas employers guilty of wage theft. But getting Texas law enforcement on board isn’t easy. For example, in the valley city of San Juan, police refuse to even take a report on wage theft, said Elliott Tucker, an attorney and organizer with the South Texas Civil Rights Project.
"We’re in this loop where we haven’t been enforcing the law and lots of people are simply exploiting cheap labor," Tucker told me. "We’re stuck in this cycle right now and we’ve created structures based on this cycle. It’s disgusting."
Tucker works with a variety of workers on wage theft problems, from agricultural to restaurant to construction workers. He said the valley is home to systematic problems among public and private subcontractors — “fly-by-night” contractors who submit the lowest contract bid because they know they won’t be paying payroll taxes and providing safety equipment; they just drive though the colonias, pick up people, “work them to death,” don’t pay and then move on to a different colonia, he said.
"Workers are just sick and tired of being abused and trampled on," he said.
But Tucker said he’s confident things will change in the Valley: “The economy down here is doing pretty well and as it develops further there will be a much more formalized economy and hopefully that will bring with it improvements in workers’ rights.”
Lopez says he’s hopeful too. He reports that he and fellow advocates with Fuerza del Valle have drafted a memorandum of understanding about the new Texas wage theft statute and the role of police in enforcing it. Nobody’s signed onto the memorandum yet, but the hope is that all law enforcement agencies in valley communities that Fuerza del Valle organizes in will eventually sign on and take the issue seriously.
"We’ve just got to have faith and we always have to carry hope, otherwise it’s hard to keep moving forward," Lopez said. "We just have to be optimistic that we can change things and that we will change things."
Special thanks to Hector Guzman Lopez, who provided translation during two of this story’s interviews.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for a decade. Krisberg asks that Pump Handle receive credit for this column. The column first appeared on the website of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
EDINBURG, Sept. 9 - Warrant Office Jose Montenegro, 32, while serving in Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot in the 82nd Airborne Division, died on 5 Sep. when his helicopter was shot down in Logar Province.
Montenegro was in his last week of his “tour.” He previously served two combat “tours” and had been wounded in Iraq.
Isn’t it interesting how we call duty in a combat zone a “tour”? Yes, “visit scenic Afghanistan; trek through desolate mountains; experience the thrill of meeting exotic people who want to kill you.” “Tour” indeed.
Jose was loved by his family, as were all 44 of the Valley’s sons and daughters who preceded him in death during their “tours” in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his bitter anti-war poem,Base Details,, “Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.” We have.
Forty-five may not seem like a large number—45 out of 6,601 who’ve died in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s just 0.68 percent. But the Valley comprises 0.41 percent of the nation’s population; meaning Valley losses are 1.66 times higher than our proportion of the population. Aside from a small town in Ohio, no area of the United States has lost more sons and daughters than the Valley.
For years, whenever we lost another son or daughter, one local newspaper doggedly under reported the number of the Valley’s war dead.
Fortunately, KGBT-TV commendably has kept and presented an accurate count. However, none of the Valley major news media have reported on how our loses are higher than virtually all of the rest of the nation.
“Poverty draft.” That’s what it is called, this “volunteer” military we have today. People from non-affluent backgrounds with limited education and job opportunities join the military, hoping to secure a better future for themselves and their families. Compared to minimum wage jobs, the pay is decent; good health care; and a good “benefits” package, including education, when they leave military service.
All they have to do is manage to stay alive, or not come home missing a few body parts, or with traumatic brain injury, or an acute case of PTSD. Good luck on all of that, especially those who get to pull, as Warrant Office Montenegro, three or more “tours” in scenic and thrilling combat zones as our military fights wars of imperial aggression so the filthy rich can continue to line their pockets by selling war materials to the government or sharing in plundering our imperial conquests.
The non-affluent fight, bleed, die so the filthy rich can wallow in their morally bankrupt filth while pursuing their insatiable greed.
Why aren’t tens of thousands of Valley citizens in the streets demanding the end of this God forsaken war, to the pillage and plunder of both our nation and Afghanistan, and the stream of the Valley’s sons and daughters coming home to be buried?
Rather than take to the streets, most Valleyites pay little attention to the war, even when we lose one of our own. In class Friday, I asked what happened Wednesday. Students suggested 5 or 6 things before a student finally said a Valley serviceman was killed in Afghanistan. To me, that should have been the first thing on everyone’s mind as we collectively grieved having lost Jose.
Sadly, as a combat veteran ruefully said, “in 2001, America’s military went to war; the American people went to the mall.”
President Obama is to be commended for the strong and moving tribute he paid to our service men and women. The First Lady and Jill Biden especially are to be commended for their work with military families and our wounded warriors. I believe President Obama cares; I do. The problem is, he does not (itl)care enough(itl).
If he cared enough, Warrant Office Montenegro still would be alive. So would Spc. Jose Rubio (Mission, 23 Mar 08), Spc Alex Gonzales (Mission, 8 May 08), Sgt. Braulio Martinez (Edinburg, 21 Oct 08), Sgt. Bradley Espinoza (Mission, 19 Oct 08), Sgt. Fernando de la Rosa (Alamo, 27 Oct 09), Pfc Adriana Alvarez (San Benito, 10 Feb 10), Ln Cpl Derek Hernandez (Edinburg, 7 Jun 10), Spc Diego Montoya (Mission, 2 Sep 10), PFC Ira Laningham (Zapata, 7 Jan 11), Sgt. Rudy Rodriguez (Weslaco, 14 Sep 11), Sgt. Estevan Altamirano (Edcouch, 18 Sep 11), Lt. Andres Zermeño (Brownsville, 18 Sep 11), Spc Kurt Kern (McAllen, 29 Dec 11), and Sgt. Joseph Frankhauser (McAllen, 22 Apr 12).
If Obama cared enough, in his first week in office, he would have ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he dragged out the Iraq war until the end of 2011, accomplishing little to nothing in the process beyond continuing the carnage on all sides. He has announced the Afghanistan war will be ended in 2014, not that he will be around actually to end the war two years after his 2nd term (provided he wins reelection) ends.
Of course, if the Ryan/Romney cowards who dodged military service while supporting wars they could and should have fought in win the election, God knows how long the Afghanistan war will continue, or what other wars they will drag us into. (More on Romney’s cowardice in a subsequent column. Also, Obama obviously didn’t serve either; but, unlike Ryan/Romney, we were not at war when he was of military service age.)
With respect to questions of war and peace, we have sorry choices in November. We can choose a man who cares, but not enough to stop the steady procession home of dead and wounded—does not care enough, or does not have spine enough to stand up to the war profiteers.
Or, we can choose Ryan/Romney, who never have seen a war they didn’t like, who, based on Romney’s acceptance speech, appear to be stuck in the Cold War, and who have surrounded themselves with foreign policy “advisors” (meaning blood thirsty chickenhawk cowards too yellow to serve themselves) from the Bush administration.
In the meantime, grieving family members have traveled to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to accompany Warrant Office Jose Montenegro home for burial.
Samuel Freeman is a political science professor based in the Rio Grande Valley. His “Left is Right” columns appear occasionally in the Guardian.
McALLEN, Sept. 9 - The United States section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (U.S. IBWC) recently hosted a meeting in Rio Grande City to explain their decision to allow Customs and Border Protection to build new border walls in the Rio Grande floodplain.
While they should be commended for reaching out to local residents, they seemed completely unprepared, unable to answer the most basic questions about their decision or the new walls.
When, for example, landowners asked whether there had been any on-the-ground surveys, and what the wall would mean for access and impacts to their property, they got no response.
The manager for Rio Grande City’s international bridge and port of entry asked how they would be able to access the riverbank to carry out ongoing erosion control efforts. U.S. IBWC did not know.
Residents asked whether walls crossing the washes that feed into the Rio Grande might become blocked with debris, preventing normal drainage and causing flooding. At that point U.S. IBWC admitted that even though they approved these new walls months ago, Customs and Border Protection still has not provided them with the walls’ design specifications, so they could not answer that question either.
U.S. IBWC was also unable, or unwilling, to answer a key question about the flood model that they are using to justify their approval of border walls in the floodplain.
In 2011 Customs and Border Protection paid Baker Engineering to produce a model that claimed that flood water would pass harmlessly through the 4-inch wide spaces between the border wall’s six-inch wide bollard posts. Baker’s accompanying report stated that, “A debris blockage of ten percent was adopted where the fence is aligned parallel to the flow and 25 percent at locations where the fence is aligned perpendicular to the flow.”
The model’s computer program cannot add to this number, cannot decide that it is too low and that in reality more debris will clog the spaces between bollards. By telling the computer that 75 percent to 90 percent of floodwater will pass through the wall, Baker effectively predetermined the model’s end result.
At the meeting in Rio Grande City, surrounded by residents whose lands and lives will depend on whether or not these walls will actually let water pass through or will dam it up, U.S. IBWC could not explain where the suspiciously round and suspiciously low estimate of ten percent to 25 percent debris blockage came from.
In earlier reports Baker Engineering came to a very different conclusion about how much debris border walls were likely to catch.
After border walls in Arizona became clogged with debris and acted as dams in 2008, inflicting millions of dollars of damage on both sides of the border and causing two deaths, Baker Engineering was hired to follow the wall from El Paso to San Diego and report back to Customs and Border Protection. Baker found that, “PF 225 fencing obstructs drainage flow every time a wash is crossed. With additional debris build-up, the International Boundary Water Commission’s (IBWC’s) criteria for rise in water surface elevations (set at 6” in rural areas and 3” in urban areas) can quickly be exceeded.” The report included photographs of bollard-style walls nearly identical to those planned for the Rio Grande floodplain filled with debris, and documented “debris build-up which sometimes reached a height of 6 feet.”
In examining on-the-ground evidence of debris clogging border walls, it bolstered a 2008 Baker Engineering white paper that looked at the likely impacts of the walls planned for Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos. In discussing the wall’s transfer capacity - the ability of water to pass between the bollards - it stated that,
“The transfer capacity estimate has been shown to include a significant allowance for “clogging” due to the accumulation of debris. In the case of fence segments O-1 [Roma] and O-2 [Rio Grande City], the transfer capacity was estimated to allow for a minimum of 85 percent and 67 percent clogging, respectively. For fence segment O-3 [Los Ebanos], a minimum allowance of 36 percent was estimated. It is important to keep in mind that these estimates apply to portions of the fence that are generally parallel to the direction of flow. Areas that are oriented generally perpendicular to the direction of flow should (for reasons of prudence) be modeled as completely blocked, primarily due to the hydraulic effects of bollards themselves.”
So how did Baker’s estimates of clogging drop from 85 percent, 67 percent, and 36 percent down to ten percent where the wall is parallel to the Rio Grande, and from 100 percent down to 25 percent where it is perpendicular?
The U.S. IBWC has yet to give the public an answer to that question.
The new flood model, with its low debris estimate, is cited by the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission as the basis for its decision to allow these border walls. The Mexican section has rejected the model’s assumptions, countering in late 2011 that these walls would likely obstruct 60 percent – 70 percent of flood flows even before the clogging effect of debris is factored in.
On February 9, 2012 the two sections of the bi-national organization met to discuss their disagreement. Meeting notes written by the same U.S. IBWC engineer who was unable to answer questions about the model’s assumptions at the Rio Grande City public meeting say that,
“It was recognized that the Mexican Section may prefer a higher percent debris blockage. It was explained that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wanted minimum debris blockage and a percentage that was felt to be reasonable was agreed upon in the meeting on February 23, 2011, during which the modeling methodology was finalized between USIBWC, DHS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Michael Baker Jr., Inc.”
So even when they met with their Mexican counterparts, U.S. IBWC gave no concrete evidence that the lower estimate was more accurate than the earlier, much higher one. The nice, round, low number was simply “felt to be reasonable,” despite conflicting with empirical evidence from Arizona, and was adopted because it matched up with the Department of Homeland Security’s desire for a model showing a “minimum debris blockage.”
Not only was Mexico’s estimate ignored, they were not even invited to participate in the 2011 modeling methodology meeting. And six days after the 2012 meeting the U.S. section, flouting its treaty obligations, unilaterally approved Customs and Border Protection’s request to build walls in the floodplain.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not hosted a public meeting on border walls in South Texas since 2007, but they did send a representative to the recent Rio Grande City meeting. He declined to present any information, and remained silent unless he was asked a direct question.
When asked when CBP would begin construction he said that at this time they do not have the funds to build these walls. He failed to mention that CBP bought the steel years ago and currently has it in storage. More importantly, he failed to mention that the new fiscal year for federal agencies begins on October 1, at which time their bank accounts will be refilled.
If border residents want answers, we need to demand them now.
Representative Cuellar and Senators Hutchison and Cornyn need to pressure the U.S. IBWC to reverse its bad decision, and direct Customs and Border Protection to finally give up on these dangerous walls. They need to take concrete action, and they need to do it now.
But of course they won’t, unless we, their constituents and voters, tell them to.
October is only three weeks away. The clock is ticking.
Scott Nicol lives in McAllen and chairs the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team. For more information visitwww.sierraclub.org/borderlands.
Just got home from ‘Spring Awakening’ - if y’all haven’t checked it out, tomorrow is the last performance at 8PM @ Edinburg Auditorium
12$ for general public
10$ for students with I.D.
Doors open at 7:30 PM
RGV ALTERNATIVE APPROVED!