PBS-VOCES: “BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM”

CHRONICLING THE PLIGHT OF IMMIGRANT CONSTRUCTION WORKERS FIGHTING FOR FAIR WORKING CONDITIONS

Doc airs Tuesday, September 15 at 10pm on Thirteen

New York’s skyline has soared to new heights in recent years thanks in large part to construction workers. But amid this building boom dozens have died on the job despite regulations intended to keep them safe. Workplace tragedies continue at job sites across the country. Now a new film, “Building The American Dream” is giving us a firsthand look at the fight for fair working conditions and the abuse of immigrant labor. Airing as part of Voces — the acclaimed PBS documentary series produced by Latino Public Broadcasting — the film takes us to Texas to depict the downside of putting business over people. As part of our Chasing The Dream initiative on poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America, the film’s Producer and Director Chelsea Hernandez joins us.

For more information on “Building the American Dream,” click here.

Aired on September 15, 2020.

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Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

TRANSCRIPT

> WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

THE NEW YORK SKY LINE HAS SOARED TO HEIGHTS IN RECENT YEARS THANKS IN LARGE PART TO CONSTRUCTION WORKERS.

BUT AMID THIS BUILDING BOOM, DOZENS DIED ON THE JOB DESPITE THE REGULATIONS INTENDED TO KEEP THEM SAFE.

WORKPLACE TRAGEDIES CONTINUE TO HAPPEN AT JOB SITES ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

NOW A 2NEW FIFTH 'BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM' IS GIVING US A FIRSTHAND LOOK AT THE ABUSE OF IMMIGRANT LABOR AND FIGHT FOR FAIR LEGISLATION.

THE AUTHOR OF THE CLAIMED DOCUMENTARY SERIES PRODUCED BY LATINO PUBLIC BROADCASTING, THE FILM TAKES US TO TEXAS THAT SHOWS THE DOWNSIDE OF PRIORITIZING BUSINESS OVER WORKERS.

HERE'S A PREVIEW.

♪ [ SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE ]

ONE IN FIVE TEXAS CONSTRUCTION WORKERS ARE SUBJECT TO A INJURY OR FATALITY.

THESE ARE ONE IN TEN WORKERS THAT HAS THE HARDEST YOU CAN POSSIBLY DO.

[ SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE ]

AND JOINING US NOW AS PART OF OUR CHASING THE DREAM INITIATIVE ON POVERTY AND OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA IS THE FILM'S PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR CHELSEA HERNANDEZ.

CHELSEA, WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

GREAT TO BE HERE.

CHELSEA, FIRST OF ALL, WHAT DREW YOU TO THIS PARTICULAR ISSUE AND WHAT ULTIMATELY LED YOU TO MAKE A FILM ABOUT IT?

SURE.

SO I WAS ATTENDING COLLEGE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS BACK IN 2009, AND WHILE I WAS ATTENDING FILM SCHOOL THERE, THERE WAS A CONSTRUCTION ACCIDENT NEAR CAMPUS, AND THREE WORKERS HAD FALLEN TO THEIR DEATH AFTER THE SCAFFOLD HAD COLLAPSED.

AND SO THAT KIND OF JUST WOKE ME UP TO REALIZE THAT THE WORKERS WHO WERE BUILDING IN MY HOMETOWN WERE DYEING OR BEING INJURED AT THE JOB.

AND I FOUND THIS ORGANIZATION THAT FRIENDS WERE VOLUNTEERING AT CALLED WORKERS DEFENSE PROJECT AND THAT'S WHEN I LEARNED TEXAS WAS THE DEADLIEST STATE FOR CONSTRUCTION AND THAT NEARLY HALF A MILLION -- HALF A MILLION OF THE WORKFORCE WAS UNDOCUMENTED.

SO I WAS JUST SHOCKED THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY HOMETOWN AND HAPPENING ACROSS THE STATE AND REALLY WANTING TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

I STARTED FILMING IN 2014 AND FILMED FOR ABOUT 4 YEARS.

MOST OF THE WORKERS IN THE FILM ARE UNDOCUMENTED, NOT ALL, BUT MOST.

THAT'S WHAT MAKES IT SO INCREDIBLY VULNERABLE TO ABUSE AND TO EXPLOITATION, RIGHT?

AS FAR AS THE LAWS ARE NOW.

YEAH, IMMIGRANT WORKERS ARE MORE AT RISK OF BEING INJURED ON THE JOB, FACING WAGE GAPS MORE THAN AMERICAN WORKERS AND THAT'S JUST THE REALITY OF THE INDUSTRY.

THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON A LONG TIME.

TEXAS IS THE ONLY STATE IN THE COUNTRY THAT DOESN'T REQUIRE COMPANIES TO PROVIDE WORKMEN'S COMPENSATION AND I THINK THAT LEADS TO A LOT OF EXPLOITATION ON THE JOB, ESPECIALLY IMMIGRANTS.

YOU KNOW, AS THE FILM PROGRESSES THE WORKERS IN YOUR FILM BEGIN TO ORGANIZE, BEGIN TO FIGHT BACK AND HAVE SOME SUCCESSES.

I DON'T WANT TO GIVE TOO MUCH AWAY, BUT THERE'S ONE PARTICULAR WORKER WHO'S VERY ACTIVE AND VERY IMPRESSIVE AND JUST AFTER SHE HAD SOME SUCCESS, SHE GETS PICKED UP BY ISIS.

IS THAT A COINCIDENCE OR RETALIATION?

YEAH, I'M NOT SURE IF IT WAS IN REGARDS TO HER COMING OUT AND COMPLAINING ABOUT NOT BEING PAID, BUT REALLY, IT'S THE FEAR THAT MOST IMMIGRANTS FACE, ESPECIALLY UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS, IS THE FEAR OF BEING DEPORTED.

SO NOT ONLY DOES SHE GO TO WORK EVERY DAY TO A DANGEROUS SITE WHERE SHE COULD POTENTIALLY GET INJURED OR DIE ON THE JOB, BUT ALSO FACE WAGE STATS SHE WAS GOING THROUGH OR EVEN JUST DRIVING TO THE GROCERY STORE OR PICKING UP HER KIDS, SHE COULD POTENTIALLY BE DEPORTED.

THERE ARE A NUMBER OF CAPTIVATING PORTIONS.

THERE'S ONE YOU FOLLOW A FAMILY WHOSE SON DIED FROM LEAST EXHAUSTION.

HE WAS WORKING IN OVER 100-DEGREE WEATHER TEMPERATURES WITHOUT A BREAK.

STILL, THE FAMILY GOES TO THE DALLAS CITY COUNCIL PUSHING FOR AN ORDINANCE THAT ASKS -- THAT REQUIRES TEN MINUTES -- A TEN-MINUTE BREAK EVERY FOUR HOURS.

EXTREMELY MODEST.

I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT I WAS SO SURPRISED TO HEAR THE COUNCIL MEMBERS ARGUE AGAINST THAT.

I WAS SURPRISED AND ANGERED.

I WONDER, WAS THAT YOUR REACTION AS YOU WERE WITNESSING THIS?

IT REALLY WAS.

I MEAN, I WASN'T SO MUCH SURPRISED THAT THEY WERE -- THEY HAD THIS ATTITUDE TOWARDS WORKERS AND TOWARDS REGULATIONS OF BUSINESSES AFTER RESEARCHING YEARS BEFORE WE STARTED PICKING UP THE CAMERA, I KNEW THAT THE BUSINESS -- OR THE POLITICAL SECTOR WAS DEFINITELY ON BOARD WITH LITTLE REGULATIONS AND WANTED BUSINESSES TO FLOURISH AND WASN'T LOOKING OUT FOR THE LITTLE GUY, THE EMPLOYEE.

BUT I WAS REALLY SHOCKED THAT THEY WERE SAYING SOME PRETTY MEAN STUFF IN FRONT OF THE FAMILY WHO JUST LOST THEIR SON TO HEATSTROKE ON THE JOB.

CALLING THEM AND THE GROUP THAT WERE FIGHTING FOR REST BREAKS CHARLATANS, TO QUIT TELLING BUSINESS NO.

THAT WAS REALLY SHOCKING TO ME THAT THEY WERE JUST SO OPEN ABOUT IT IN A PUBLIC FORUM.

IT WAS A PUBLIC CITY COUNCIL HEARING BEING RECORDED.

MEDIA WAS THERE.

THAT WAS REALLY SHOCKING TO ME BUT I THINK IT'S ALSO EMBLEMATIC OF HOW GOVERNMENT AND THE INDUSTRY WORKS TOGETHER HERE IN THE STATE.

BUT YOU KNOW THE INSULTS ASIDE, THE FUNDAMENTAL ARGUMENTS THAT THESE COUNCIL MEMBERS ARE MAKING AND THAT TEXAS -- TEXAS, BUSINESS AND GOVERNMENT, TENDS TO MAKE, TEXAS HAS HAD ITS ECONOMIC SUCCESS, THE TEXAS MIRACLE, BECAUSE IT HAS SO FEW REGULATIONS, BECAUSE IT HAS SUCH A RELATIVELY CHEAP AND DOS ILL W DOCILE WORKFORCE.

AND IF THEY LOSE THOSE ADVANTAGES, EVERYBODY LOSES THE WORKERS.

HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THAT?

I THINK IT'S REALLY NOT TRUE.

YOU KNOW, IN TEXAS THERE'S A LARGE SHORTAGE OF WORKERS, AND MANY HAVE FLED BACK TO THEIR HOME COUNTRIES BECAUSE THE FEAR OF RETALIATION, THE FEAR OF DEPORTATION, ESPECIALLY IN OUR CURRENT TIMES WHERE WE HAVE A PRESIDENT WHO IS FEELING ANTI-IMMIGRANT RHETORIC TO PUBLIC.

BUT THE MYTH OF THEM TAKING AWAY JOBS, OR IF WE ADD ON REGULATIONS, BUSINESSES ARE NOT GOING TO MANY COULD.

OFTEN IN DALLAS MOST HAVE REST BREAK ORDINANCES AND COMPANIES CONTINUE TO FLOURISH.

SO WE DON'T SEE THE LACK OF BOOM THAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS STATE, AND IN REALITY I THINK WE COULD REALLY ADD TO THE WORKFORCE, AND HELP FILL THAT SHORTAGE OF WORKERS IF PEOPLE KNOW THAT THEY'RE GOING TO A SAFE WORK ENVIRONMENT, THAT THEY WON'T GET KILLED ON THE JOB, MAYBE THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY CAN ACTUALLY EXPAND AND REALLY DO WELL AT PROTECTING THEIR WORKERS.

YOU KNOW, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT THE FILM DOES SO WELL, 'AMERICAN DREAM' IS IN THE TITLE AND THAT'S A PHRASE BY MULTI GENERATIONS OF AMERICANS ARE SEEN AS A SLOGAN OR CLICHE BUT CERTAINLY NOT THE PEOPLE YOU FILM.

FOR THE PEOPLE YOU FILM, THE AMERICAN DREAM IS VERY REAL.

NOT ONLY THAT, THEY ARE ALREADY BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAMS IN THEIR LIVES, EVEN WITH ALL OF THE OBSTACLES THEY FACE.

YOU SHOW THAT VERY SUBTLY.

YOU DON'T TALK ABOUT IT BUT YOU SHOW IT.

THE FAMILIES ARE DOING WELL, THEY'RE HARD WORKING AND THEY'RE KIND OF CONSERVATIVE.

AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE, OZZY AND HARRIET, MUCH MORE THAN MOST AMERICANS ARE.

AND THESE PEOPLE WOULDN'T BE ORGANIZING AND FIGHTING IF THEY DIDN'T HAVE TO.

THEY'RE WORKERS AND CONSERVATIVE AND SAY THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE, AND IT'S IRONIC WHO THE CONSERVATIVES THAT SHOULD SEE THEM AS CONSTITUENTS THAT ARE KIND OF FIGHTING THEM.

IS THAT CHANGING IN TEXAS, BECAUSE IT'S CHANGING NATIONALLY A LITTLE BIT?

WHAT'S YOUR EXPERIENCE?

YES, YOU'RE SO ON POINT AND THESE WORKERS ARE VERY PRIDEFUL TO BE IN THIS COUNTRY.

I KNOW CLAUDIA, ONE OF THE ELECTRICIANS FEATURED IN THE FILM, SHE WAS ALWAYS WEARING T-SHIRT THAT'S HAD THE AMERICAN FLAG AND WAS KIND OF BOASTING THESE PATRIOTIC IMAGES AND SO THEY'RE VERY PROUD TO BUILD WITH THEIR HANDS AND BUILD THESE BUILDINGS THAT MAKE UP THE SKY LINE.

BUT I DO THINK THERE IS A CHANGE AND CURRENTLY WITH THE PANDEMIC HAPPENING, PEOPLE ARE REALIZING THAT WORKERS ARE ESSENTIAL, AND SO I THINK -- ESPECIALLY CONSTRUCTION WORKERS, YOU KNOW, IN TEXAS, CONSTRUCTION WORKERS WERE WORKING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC.

THEY WERE CONSIDERED BY THE GOVERNOR AS ESSENTIAL BACK IN APRIL.

BUT KNOWING THAT THEY DON'T HAVE -- THEY DIDN'T HAVE THE SAME CONDITIONS BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, WHO'S TO SAY THEY WILL BE PROVIDED THE SAFE CONDITIONS NOW DURING THE PANDEMIC?

I THINK PEOPLE ARE REALIZING WORKERS ARE IN DIRE SITUATIONS AND NEED BETTER WORKING CONDITIONS.

SO I DO THINK IT IS CHANGING AS FAR AS THE ATTITUDE TO PROTECT WORKERS AND HAVE THAT PATRIOTISM FOR THE COUNTRY BUT FOR THE WORKERS THEMSELVES FIRST.

QUICKLY, I KNOW THE FILM IS ABOUT TEXAS BUT NOT NEW YORK.

BUT YOU KNOW A LITTLE BIT ABOUT NEW YORK.

NEW YORK IS CONSIDERED A PROGRESSIVE STATE.

HOW DOES IT COMPARE IN TERMS OF WORKER SAFETY AND GENERAL STATEMENTS OF UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS?

YEAH, I MEAN, NEW YORK DEFINITELY HAS MORE UNION WORKERS THAN TEXAS.

I BELIEVE TEXAS IS ABOUT 1% UNIONIZED SO IT'S A LITTLE BIT HARDER TO FIGHT FOR LAWS AND THAT'S WHY WORKER CENTERS ARE REALLY IMPORTANT AND COLLABORATE WITH UNIONS TO PUSH FOR LEGISLATION.

NEW YORK IS A LITTLE DIFFERENT BECAUSE THEY DO HAVE A BIGGER UNION WORKFORCE.

HOWEVER, IS SINCE THE CITY BUDGET, THE STATE BUDGET HAS KIND OF DECREASED THEIR FUNDING FOR CITY PROJECTS, THAT'S WHEN YOU TEND TO SEE COMPANIES, DEVELOPERS HIRING CONTRACTORS THAT ARE NOT UNIONIZED THAT DON'T HAVE A RAPPORT AND THEY END UP, YOU KNOW, GETTING WORKERS ON THE STREETS WHO DON'T HAVE ANY TRAINING.

I DO KNOW THAT IN NEW YORK, I THINK THEY JUST PASSED A LEGISLATION NOW WHERE CONSTRUCTION WORKERS DO HAVE TO GET AN OSHA CERTIFIED TRAINING, WHICH IS REALLY GREAT FOR THE CITY IN MAKING SURE THAT PEOPLE ARE WORKING CORRECTLY, PROVIDING THAT SAFE ENVIRONMENT AMONG EACH OTHER.

BUT, YOU KNOW, YOU CAN SEE WHEN THERE'S A LACK OF SAFETY ON THE JOB, YOU'LL HAVE MAJOR ACCIDENTS HAPPEN AND IN NEW YORK, THEY'VE HAD ACCIDENTS INCREASE OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS.

THERE WERE HORRENDOUS CRANE ACCIDENTS THAT HAPPENED THERE.

AND IT MAKES YOU WONDER WHAT KIND OF WORKING CONDITIONS WERE THOSE WORKERS IN, IN THE FIRST PLACE?

WE ONLY HAVE ABOUT 20 SECONDS LEFT.

ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE WORKERS IN AMERICA IN GENERAL BUT SPECIFICALLY THE UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS?

YES, I'M VERY OPTIMISTIC.

I DON'T THINK IT'S GOING TO CHANGE OVERNIGHT, BUT I THINK THERE'S A GROWING MOVEMENT AND I HOPE THAT THIS FILM ENCOURAGES OTHER WORKERS TO STAND UP AGAINST EXPLOITATION AS WELL AND PUSH FOR MORE CHANGES IN LAW.

CHELSEA, IT'S A WONDERFUL FILM.

I HOPE A LOT OF PEOPLE SEE IT.

I KNOW HAD WILL HAVE A GOOD IMPACT.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR JOINING US TODAY.

IT'S BEEN A PLEASURE TO HAVE YOU HERE.

THANK YOU.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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