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Contractor drops racial slur at county meeting, participants say

Tuesday, May 15, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

A Travis County-led stakeholder discussion between construction contractors and labor interests reached a boiling point last week when one of the participants used a racial slur, according to people at the meeting.

Multiple sources confirmed to the Austin Monitor on Monday that, when discussing wages and other work site conditions, Aaron Cabaza of Aaron Concrete Contractors grew agitated and referred to construction workers as “wetbacks,” an offensive term used to derogatorily describe immigrants from Mexico.

The county convened the meeting last Tuesday in order to discuss a set of proposals to bolster protections for workers on county projects. The Purchasing Office’s Contract Compliance Program cooked up the 10 recommendations aimed at ensuring contractors commit to paying appropriate wages, providing federally approved safety training, and other work site safety measures.

The Commissioners Court took up those proposals last month but decided to delay action in order to gather more input from stakeholders.

Matt Friestman, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520, said Cabaza’s contribution was more incendiary than input.

Friestman told the Monitor that Cabaza was clearly upset when the talks turned to details related to proposed paperwork that contractors would have to fill out to certify that they pay their workers appropriate wages.

“He said, ‘Just put in whatever the heck you want,’” Friestman recounted. “‘It doesn’t matter. We’re going to pay them whatever you say we have to pay them. Look, I grew up in South Texas and down there, we used to work these wetbacks. But we were good to them. We would house them and we would feed them, and we were good to them.’”

Matt Gonzales with Laborers’ International Union Local 1095 corroborated Friestman’s account.

“A gasp kind of went across the room, and a hush fell among the Travis County staff,” Gonzales said of the moments immediately following the comment.

Both men said that after Cabaza finished talking, Friestman stood up and pleaded with him to refrain from using racial epithets. At that point, the county staff mediating the discussion called for a 10-minute break.

County spokesperson Hector Nieto told the Monitor that staff admonished Cabaza for the language and told him the slur is “unacceptable.” Nieto said an audio recording of the meeting was made but was not available on Monday.

Phil Thoden, president of the Austin chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, also confirmed that Cabaza used the term.

“He’s a straight talker. He is Hispanic himself, grew up in the Rio Grande Valley,” Thoden said. “I think there’s frustration on the part of the construction community when we’re brought in at the tail end of agreements that impact day-to-day operations on the work site.”

Cabaza did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment.

Gonzales, using measured terms, called Cabaza’s use of the slur “unfortunate.”

“Him being a contractor and representing the industry is very telling of the greater problem that we have of companies seeing workers as a commodity,” said Gonzales. “He definitely showed his colors.”

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