In the Blog.

Support trades and the middle class

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Saving the American middle class is a tall order, but I believe firmly that it can be done. Previously, I explained how hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers in our city are simultaneously being exploited while propping up the so-called "Texas Miracle." Jobs that could create a middle-class way of life for many of our youth are instead held by someone being paid off the books and avoiding payroll taxes while those costs are shifted to all other taxpayers.

The undocumented should not be blamed. They came to the United States to fill jobs that would improve their lives and provide for their families.

When our economy was booming, they provided the labor that was otherwise unavailable. But during the economic meltdown of 2008, their wages dropped, as did the wages of legal workers who were competing for the same jobs. Now that the economy is improving, those wages are not rising. That's because of the supply of labor coming into Texas from all over the United States.

Many have fled states like Georgia, Mississippi and Arizona where legislatures have passed harsh immigration crackdowns. Texas lawmakers have not made that mistake. So, immigrant workers don't leave the U.S., they simply come to work in Texas.

I agree with the Chronicle editorial board's assessment ("Challenge awaits" Page B10, Jan. 23) that President Obama's executive order is a great opportunity for workers in many industries, especially construction, to get out of the shadows, get right with the law and become taxpaying members of society. Instead of being paid in cash or off payrolls with no Social Security taxes withheld, those who apply and meet strict requirements will be given an identity card and can start to pay their fair share into the system.

Will it work? This is a matter of trust. Will the government be able to follow through on the president's promise of legal status and decreased deportations? It will be a tough sell because of the challenges in our courts and rhetoric from certain elected leaders engaged in the politics of fear.

Much of that is simply theater.

Here in the real world, we can start taking steps to create good careers. The president's actions are necessary, but the private sector should act as well to address our workforce needs. The biggest obstacle, perhaps, is an unwillingness of some employers to create hourly jobs that pay well and take into consideration the taxes that should be paid. It is difficult to reverse the trend when construction jobs are so often bid with cheap labor rates based on a workforce being paid off the books. There is a solution taking hold in our city. A group of dedicated facility owners and construction companies has been quietly developing a program called the Construction Career Collaborative or C3. It's a program modeled after the Green Building movement, which is all about building sustainable structures for the future. C3, too, is all about building a sustainable labor force for our future. A main component of C3 is an hourly wage rate with applicable taxes. Safety training and workman's compensation insurance also are required. C3 is a voluntary program that enlightened owners like Texas Children's Hospital, M.D. Anderson and the Archdiocese of Galveston–Houston have adopted. They require all workers on their jobs to be treated as employees, not independent subcontractors. As a next step, the city of Houston should demand that all projects involving any tax dollars should adhere to C3 standards as well. Write to your City Council member and the mayor and ask that they adopt the principles of the Construction Career Collaborative for projects throughout the city. Our community must work together to attract young men and women back into the skilled trades. We have neglected one of our largest assets because of the availability of cheap immigrant labor. It's time to re-create middle-class opportunities for our kids with good jobs that pay by the hour and create a career path.

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