Wage Theft in the Rio Grande Valley, a Short Interview with Elliott Tucker of STCRP

By Nick Braune

Last summer I interviewed an attorney for the South Texas Civil Rights Project (STCRP), Elliott Tucker, who is working on the issue of “wage theft.” He described plans to meet labor lawyers throughout Hidalgo and Cameron Counties and to initiate community workshops helping workers to know their rights.

Over the last year STCRP’s work has proceeded apace, with a Valley coalition being formed, Fuerza del Valle. Fuerza unites various groups concerned about wage theft: STCRP, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), the Start Center in San Benito, ARISE, and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Have there been successes? Yes, with employers finally paying up and others facing lawsuits. The big success is that more workers are learning they can fight unscrupulous bosses.

Last week Tucker sent me a press release, “STCRP Stands up for Hotel Cleaning Employees in Weslaco: Workers file suit to protect their fundamental right to fair pay.” The suit charges that a local inn employed workers (regularly vacuuming and sweeping) but didn’t bother to pay hourly wages in accordance with federal law. Apparently the workers complained and the employer chuckled, until someone had the sense to contact Fuerza.

The press release states: “STCRP has filed a lawsuit on behalf of these three workers to demand fair payment for a fair day’s work. The lawsuit also includes claims for illegal and insidious debt collection practices — the hotel lured the cleaning ladies into living there for a time, only to hold the debt over their heads and force them to work even longer hours.”

I contacted Elliott Tucker.

Braune: A question: Maybe employers start out innocently enough by feeling they’re doing a quick favor to people who are out of work. Am I right? Last year someone knocked on my door, said he needed money and would trim my hedges for $20 — should I have said no?

Tucker: Good people sometimes offer work to help somebody out, we can all understand that. However, the allegations in our complaint — debt labor — show that this was oppressive exploitation, the work of a malevolent mind with a firm grip on employees, not a helping hand. Also, several individuals have joined the suit and corroborated the awful threats and harassment.

Braune: What response has the owner made?

Tucker: It was twisted — he first denied they were employees, then complained that they lacked legal documents, and then said the lawsuit was a “shakedown.” Sadly, among employers in the RGV, there are some wolves dressed as lambs.

Braune: I would think that honest businesses would hate the businesses which cheat.

Tucker: Yes, when dishonest employers operate with impunity and exploit poorly educated low-wage workers, we all suffer. The many respectable businesses that form part of the Chamber of Commerce struggle in price wars with unscrupulous competitors who disregard the law. And poorly paid workers often depend on the social safety net more than if they were paid $7.25 per hour in accordance with the law.

Braune: Should undocumented workers feel nervous about contacting your group?

Tucker: No worker, regardless of immigration status, should feel nervous about contacting my group. [STCRP: 956-787-8171] As non-profits we have no affiliation with the government and exist to serve the people, not divide them with unjust immigration laws or policies. Federal and state labor law protects all employees in the United States, regardless of immigration status.

[“Reflection and Change” in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, August 8, 2011]