Workers take on D’Ambra

July 4, 2012

Clinton McBride reports on a fight by iron workers working for a Texas contractor.

WORKERS AT D'Ambra Steel in Texas are involved in a heated battle to win basic rights on the job.

D'Ambra is a Texas-based construction subcontractor, which is working on several projects to install rebar (steel reinforcement in concrete) throughout the Southwest, including hospitals, parking garages, highways and skyscrapers in Dallas, Houston, El Paso, and Austin. The company prides itself on its "unique service" and timely work, according to its website.

The company also declares that "safety is the number one job and responsibility of each and every employee" and that "the best and most complete safety rules in the world will not prevent accidents. People cause accidents by taking unnecessary personal risks."

If that sounds like D'Ambra doesn't care, the company also insists it "will not compromise accident and injury prevention for profit or production."

But the people who work for the company say otherwise. On May 25, D'Ambra workers who have taken strike action in Dallas joined fellow iron workers from Great Western Erectors, whose campaign for justice has been ongoing since 2005, at a press conference and rally to give testimony about conditions on the job.

A May 25 press conference and rally helped expose D'Ambra Steel's anti-worker behavior
A May 25 press conference and rally helped expose D'Ambra Steel's anti-worker behavior (Texas Communist Party)

The workers described the construction industry's common practice of denying bathroom breaks for hours and making workers pay for drinking water. They also said it was common to work up to 16 hours a day, with only a half-hour break to eat and use the restroom--only to be told the next day that they can't work because the company doesn't want to pay overtime wages.

While D'Ambra says accidents and injuries on the job are the fault of workers, the strikers insist the company doesn't provide safety equipment--workers had to purchase their own gloves and other gear.

Maybe D'Ambra thinks its employees will brave these clearly unsafe working conditions for good pay and benefits. But the best-paid workers at D'Ambra projects, those who work directly with supervisors, earn only $14 an hour and the company doesn't offer health insurance.

The sick irony of the situation for D'Ambra workers set in for other Dallas activists who attended the May 25 rally when one of the strikers explained that his wife has cancer, but D'Ambra won't pay for their visits to the hospital that he's working to expand.

SEPARATELY, IN Houston, D'Ambra has a contract to do work on ExxonMobil's $1.2 billion project to build a new corporate campus. When D'Ambra managers caught wind that workers were meeting and planning a wildcat strike, they threatened to fire everyone who didn't come in to work, especially if they decided to form a union.

On June 11, 80 of D'Ambra's 100 workers walked off the job. The rebar they install is usually the first step in any new construction, so when they refused to work for the day, the entire construction site was shut down.

Despite the threats, D'Ambra didn't fire anyone, and workers won a new pay contract, one the company says will honor the skills of the workers. At the time of their strike, none of the workers were unionized, but many of them defied the company and joined the Iron Workers Local 847.

Just a few weeks prior, two workers walked off a job site at the University of Texas at Dallas in protest. These workers, along with organizers from the Iron Workers International Union, other unions and grassroots community groups, are fighting to build a campaign against D'Ambra and to convince more workers to join them.

Many of the workers at D'Ambra projects are undocumented immigrants and don't speak English. A number of them don't know that D'Ambra is required to follow labor laws or safety regulations, so the company is able to ignore these.

D'Ambra often works on public projects, so public entities like the cities of Dallas and Houston, the University of Texas system and even NASA are also guilty by association. These projects typically cost taxpayers many millions of dollars, but the people who do the work see very little of the money.

D'Ambra workers and their supporters who are taking action hope that building a public campaign to expose D'Ambra will force these public entities to reconsider future contracts with the company. If they're successful, D'Ambra will be forced to either implement better labor conditions or see its bids on lucrative public projects denied. If D'Ambra makes this choice, it would ripple through the entire industry, empowering other workers to fight and win their own struggles.

Support for the workers from other activists has been important. At the May 25 rally and press conference, a delegation of about 40 activists accompanied striking workers to Dallas' Parkland Hospital, where D'Ambra is working on an expansion project. The workers won an audience with a representative of Parkland Hospital, but only after an hour and a half of stalling--and after Parkland called in the police on peaceful protesters and workers.

On June 15, a 20-person delegation accompanied the striking workers at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) to meet with administrators and alert the university to labor conditions for D'Ambra workers. Campus police detained the group for about an hour on a sidewalk, questioning the workers and their representatives, before finally allowing two people to proceed to the administration building--the rest were kicked off campus. The two-person delegation was denied an appointment with a vice president at UTD, supposedly because he was on vacation.

D'Ambra is only one company in a huge, profitable and exploitative industry, and its workers aren't alone in their mistreatment. Stepping forward as a brown-skinned laborer and making your demands for justice in Spanish is a daunting prospect, so these workers have proved their courage. Bur they're not alone in this struggle. Workers in Dallas and Houston alike have been in close contact with the Workers Defense Project, the Texas Organizing Project and the Iron Workers International.

The struggle to enforce fair working conditions will be a long one, but it can be won. And winning this fight is going to be a huge victory for all workers who want respect and justice on the job.

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