‘Building the American Dream’: A Texas wage-theft and heat-stroke nightmare
Moyo Oyelola

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called his state’s recent building boom “The Texas Miracle.” But the workers who have actually done the building often find themselves engaged in a nightmare!

Texas has lured and nurtured companies with its low taxes and negligible regulation. Cheap labor is lured from across the border and from other states. The cost of this rapid growth has been borne on the backs of its largely undocumented workforce—most notably through underpayment, wage theft, speedups and hazardous working conditions.

Moyo Oyelola

Director Chelsea Hernandez’s new PBS film (to premiere Tues., Sept. 15) Building the American Dream takes a clear-eyed, measured look at the particular costs of the building industry in Texas. Hernandez examines two case studies: the wage theft encountered by electricians Claudia and Alex and the hazardous working conditions that took the life of Randy Granillo.

Undocumented worker Claudia fled the turbulence of her native El Salvador. Like her husband Alex, with whom she worked alongside, she became a proficient electrician. But Claudia’s employer cut and then denied her promised wages. As a justification for not paying her, she was accused of stealing tools and materials. Claudia filed a wage theft claim through the government agency The Texas Workforce Commission.

While driving back from a hearing, Claudia was pulled over by ICE and detained overnight. “I felt like I was in a jungle, a hunted animal. This is not the country I wanted to live in and build my life.” In the face of this harassment, Claudia and Alex continue their struggle.

Randy Granillo was not even that lucky. Granillo, like many other undocumented workers, toiled long, dangerous hours without relief under the scorching Texas sun. Trying to work through these conditions, he was stricken and died of dehydration.

With assistance from the non-profit Workers Defense Project, Granillo’s family, friends and co-workers campaigned for a new law that would allow workers at least a ten-minute break every four hours. Opponents of this minimal safety measure claimed that it would make Texas appear unfriendly to businesses which would then go elsewhere.

After a heartfelt hearing where EMTs, other workers, community organizers and bereaved family members testified, the Ten-Minute Break Law passed in Dallas and Austin. Still, enforcement appears daunting.

Small steps, perhaps. But Emmy Award-winning director Hernandez has carefully let her subjects present their forceful stories in context. Latino Public Broadcasting continues to present bold, timely chronicles of the struggle for worker justice.


CONTRIBUTOR

Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has worked on Wisconsin recalls, Occupy and other local movements that give promise of social change. He has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for the last 18 years. After studying at Yale and Stanford, he taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!

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