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Workers’ advocate Gregorio Casar gains concessions from developers

Friday, July 20, 2012 by Michael Kanin

In 2010, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that entitles construction workers to a 10-minute rest break every four hours.


Helping push the rest-break ordinance through Council was Gregorio Casar, an intern with the Workers’ Defense Project, a now 10-year-old effort that grew from the Casa Marianella shelter.


After that success, Workers’ Defense held a position for Casar as he took a year off to study at the University of Virginia. Casar came back to Austin and, now the organization’s business liaison, worked to gain major concessions from developer Trammel Crow as part of its recent agreement with the City of Austin that will govern the redevelopment of the city’s former Green Water Treatment Plant site. If the rest-break ordinance was his coming-out party, Casar cemented his presence with the Green deal.


The Green redevelopment project had been fermenting since 2008, when Trammel Crow outbid other firms to win the right to exclusive negotiations with the city for the property. A March 2012 presentation put the vision for the project at a $500 million designed for plenty of pricey downtown living and retail space.


However, Council members weren’t convinced that affordable housing calculations were taken into account. The resulting delay also left room for Casar to work.


“As soon as (the Green Project) came up for public comment again, it was a difficult situation because we knew it had been in negotiation for so long that everybody just wanted to see it move,” Casar told In Fact Daily. “And we did as well, but there’s a reason that it’s up for public comment … so we brought up our concerns with Council members, (and) we contacted Trammel Crow directly.”


Casar said though Trammel Crow “agreed with the spirit” of the three major goals Workers’ Defense has for projects – safety, proper wages and training – the firm was only able to commit to a safety-monitoring program before the project finally came before Council.


“They were ready to make commitments toward the monitoring piece, which we were excited about, but we thought the other two pieces were low enough cost and worthwhile enough that we wanted to continue to ask for those during (a second) public hearing,” Casar said. “So it just turned into one of those late-night Council hearings. We organized a march and had about 150 supporters.”


In the end, Council – with the help of Casar – got major concessions from the Green developers. “We managed to get independent monitoring, from Workers’ Defense Project, of all the construction projects on Green, for the life of the project,” Casar said. “As well as a target goal for workers getting trained and moving up into $16-an-hour jobs. So that was a huge victory.”


Casar suggested that the Green project agreement represents a “big step” in the direction of meeting Workers’ Defense’s goal that “all these major developments happening in Austin actually have these three pieces.”


Martinez, who has worked most closely with Casar, said the young man has been effective in advocating for the rights of workers.


“I think he already has made a difference in that he’s brought issues to light that the community and the Council needed to be made aware of, and that is the overall general treatment of some of our workforce and some of our citizens here in Austin,” Martinez said. “So I think he’s done a good job and I think he’ll do even more.


Martinez added that Casar is still learning how to work with City Hall. “Like many other advocates here in Austin….there is a learning process and there is a way to go about ensuring that you’re clearly representing your constituents to the best of your ability. And I think Greg’s going to learn it and I look forward to working with him.”


Casar has no plans to stop any time soon. He noted that Workers’ Defense would take part in the discussions on the city’s economic incentive guidelines recently taken up by a special committee of City Council members.


“We are hoping that each of these three pieces can be set as policy on (appropriate) incentive deals,” Casar said. 


Casar’s organization offers a voluntary certification for construction outlets and projects that are ready to commit to better working conditions on their own. He noted that these improvements don’t have to be done via policy.


“I do think that there still is room for developers who want to do the right thing,” Casar continued. “Since this is Austin, I think there is a space for developers who want to do these things and not stick it out at Council to two in the morning.”

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