Construíndo Justiça: The Building Justice Worker Committee
This is a joint project of the Brazilian Worker Center (BWC) and Justice at Work (J@W), and has received the support of the Miller Innovation Fund and the Cummings Foundation. The Construindo Justiça Project, an equal partnership initiative of BWC and J@W, began May 2014, and was formalized in a November 2014 MOU. The project is co-facilitated by J@W’s ED Tom Smith and BWC’s Community Organizer, Lenita Sabino, who represent the two organizations on the committee. J@W mobilizes legal support; BWC staff provide administrative & outreach support to sustain it. Meetings take place at BWC. Committee members are BWC constituents. Decisions are made by majority vote. Each worker member has one vote and both BWC & J@W have one vote each.
BWC and J@W have a seven-year history of collaboration, since J@W began in 2011. BWC worked also with Tom Smith (Executive Director of J@W) earlier, when he was an Equal Works Fellow at Greater Boston Legal Services, giving support to Fair Wage coalition. J@W has provided support in Portuguese for BWC workers through regular legal consults, and trainings to BWC staff & members at the Center over the years. Through J@W’s Small Claims Project alone, J@W performed intakes with 79 BWC workers, helping recover $116,989 for 52 of them.
The problems that Building Justice aims to respond to are these: (1) the growing prevalence of wage theft toward immigrant construction workers, (2) the need for those same workers to become more organized, collective and civic in the manner they directly fight wage theft, and (3) the need for workers’ centers to find new models of organizing and support that promote more effective worker mobilization and interventions to stop or reduce unfair and illegal labor practices by employers. The project addresses the issue of how workers and worker centers can collaborate more effectively in changing the culture of exploitation that characterizes the job market for many immigrant workers – especially the Brazilian and Latino construction workers, many with insecure immigration status, that this project encompasses. Building Justice builds on the concept of a grassroots, empowered, civically engaged workers’ council that we call Construíndo Justiça (Building Justice) that attacks wage theft on a community-wide scale, that we are committed to help replicate in other localities and with other ethnic groups.
Our model departs from the typical practices of many worker centers, where staff receive and support wage theft complaints from individuals or groups that are workplace based, and where workers’ rights staff do most of the work on behalf of the worker: in-taking cases, assisting in filling out complaint forms, negotiating with employers, referring cases to state and federal authorities or attorneys, and arguing cases in court if needed. This traditional model has been very effective in winning restitution, probably in the tens of millions of dollars in settlements, for many thousands of individual workers in Massachusetts in the last decade. Sometimes, too, co-workers at a common worksite bring joint cases which, when they are adjudicated by state or federal labor authorities, or the courts, can win large one-time settlements. One-time successes won through these methods, however, have not been effective in reducing the prevalence of wage theft as a norm in the wider local construction industry, especially in the more informal, smaller-scale non-union sector that employs most immigrants.
Construindo Justiça is in line with the organizing mission of J@W and BWC and reflects BWC’s approach to its domestic worker program; it is industry-based, not workplace-based, and it realizes a much higher level of worker leadership and agency in resolving workers’ rights complaints. The worker’s role is now more participatory and collective, as they receive more advanced training allowing them to take increased responsibility in managing their own and peers’ cases. Workers form a common council that collectively deliberates in defining strategy in how to move cases forward, and what mix or graded series of negotiation, agency complaint, private lawsuit, or public action will be most effective in resolving it. In doing so, workers look beyond their own personal cases and take civic leadership in overseeing all cases coming from the community, mobilizing resources, and shaping responses that can have broad impact on the labor standards of local employers.