Crackdown on Labor Laws

Labor groups fighting the use of undocumented workers on public construction projects are claiming a victory in Massachusetts.

Attorney General Martha Coakley is increasing enforcement of some labor laws, and has started punishing contractors that skirt state rules.

WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports.



BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: When the city of Revere was building a new police and fire station last fall, the subcontractor in charge of plastering stucco on the outside underpaid its workers according to the state Attorney General's office.

Pillar Construction agreed to pay a fine and nearly $30,000 in restitution to ten workers.

PETE STRACUZZI: It's a step in the right direction. It's a win.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Pete Stracuzzi first got wind of Pillar's operation from his union members on the site, who noticed the men working for Pillar were different from everyone else there...for one, they mainly spoke Spanish....

One of his union members pointed out the Pillar workers to WBUR.

UNION MEMBER: There's a lot of guys that are qualified for the job. And they're all home. While you got all these guys getting cheated. Who's getting cheated? My men are...I mean I got nothing against the illegal immigrants but you know.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Two of the Pillar workers admitted to WBUR that they are undocumented. An attorney for Pillar told WBUR last fall that the company collected valid documentation from the men showing they have permission to work in this country, which is all they are required to do by law. The attorneys have not returned calls seeking comment on the recent settlement.


BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: The sometimes uneasy relationship between unions and immigrants stems from a sense that these workers' willingness to work for less coupled with their reluctance to complain because of their tenuous legal status drives down labor standards.

Mark Erlich is executive secretary-treasurer for the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. He says Coakley's office is paying more attention to the construction industry's labor violations.

MARK ERLICH: It was quite discouraging prior to this administration and quite encouraging with this administration.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Coakley has taken action against nearly twice as many companies in her first year than attorney general Tom Reilly did on average.

Coakley's settlement with Pillar construction will put about $3,000 each in the hands of ten workers. A review of the payroll documents shows that if Pillar had been following the rules, each worker would have earned $20 more per hour.

While some on the job suggest that workers were being underpaid because they were illegal, Coakley's case against Pillar Construction never mentions where the construction workers are from.

Coakley says it doesn't matter.

MARTHA COAKLEY: We are not the federal government. We do not enforce the immigration laws. We really just focus on making sure people are paid appropriately in Massachusetts.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: So you never ask them?

MARTHA COAKLEY: We don't. It's not relevant to our inquiry.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Coakley says she wants immigrants to feel safe bringing complaints against employers. But more often, it's the unions that blow the whistle, just as Pete Stracuzzi did.

Stracuzzi says his members won't get anything from this settlement in the short term. But he hopes it will discourage towns and cities from contracting with Pillar on future public projects.

PETE STRACUZZI: I'm not saying a union shop should get the job. But the better company gets the job and does the right thing. That's what it's all about.

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: And more enforcement will discourage companies from underpaying workers, according to Coakley, and that will level the playing field for businesses that play by the rules.

For WBUR, I'm Bianca Vazquez Toness.

This program aired on February 19, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.


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