Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on labor issues in Texas.
AUSTIN, Tex.—“I feel like we’re on the cusp of achieving some measurable political power that we haven’t had in decades,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy, speaking in the organization’s offices near the state capitol, tells LaborPress.
Texas is widely considered an anti-union state. It ranked fifth-lowest in the nation in union density in 2018, with only 4.3% of its workers—about 510,000 in a state of almost 29 million people—union members. Almost one-third of the state’s legislators are affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the far-right bill-crafting outfit that’s developed measures to prohibit local governments from raising the minimum wage or requiring employers to give workers paid sick leave. But Levy, who has headed the state federation since 2017, sees plenty of grounds for optimism.
“Texas isn’t really an anti-union state,” he says. “It’s an unorganized state. When you put the resources into organizing, you can have success, and I think we’re showing it.”
The American Federation of Teachers, which along with the American Federation of Government Employees are the Texas AFL-CIO’s two largest affiliates, invested several million dollars in organizing there a couple years ago, he says. The building-trades unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Painters, and the Plumbers, “have done a major investment, particularly in the Gulf Coast,” he continues, and have gotten a lot of work rebuilding since Hurricane Harvey in 2017. UNITE HERE won representation for catering workers at United Airlines last year, and is now organizing those at airline-food contractor LSG SkyChefs. And the national AFL-CIO has selected Houston as one of three cities for a “multi-sector coordinated organizing campaign.”
Texas unions have the biggest numbers on the Gulf Coast, from Beaumont through Houston to Corpus Christi. The highest density, Levy says, is in Tarrant County, which includes Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the Lockheed Martin aerospace plant in Fort Worth, and the General Motors factory in Arlington.
“You look at the statistics nationally of who are more likely to join unions, and it’s younger people, it’s people of color, it’s women, and we have a lot of those people in Texas,” Levy says. “It’s just a matter of building a broad movement to make people who haven’t traditionally been part of our movement feel like they have a home here.”
In the building trades, that often involves bringing people into the MC3 preapprenticeship program, “a three-week course of basic training” that leads to four-year union apprenticeships in different crafts. That program emerged after Hurricane Harvey, when various organizations were getting grants for job training. The building-trades unions, Levy says, paid for it themselves at first, “to show how it worked,” and the state told them that if two or three out of 20 people in a class actually got jobs, that would be a really good success rate.
“When we do ours: 20 out of 20 get jobs,” he says. “And it blew them away. They couldn’t deny the success of the notion that when you do it in a union apprenticeship program, it’s in conjunction with employers. That you have a job at the end, and you’re working from day one, earning your living and having benefits.”
The unions are also providing MC3 training in Austin for members of the Workers Defense Project, a worker-center organization for nonunion workers, often immigrants.
“The construction industry in Texas is highly immigrant,” Levy says. “There’s a large sector of undocumented workers. The building trades understand, at least most do, that if you’re going to have influence and market share, you need to organize the people who are doing the work.”
“We’re not the immigration police,” he adds.
Unions have a great appeal to immigrant construction workers, because “the floor of what people are dealing with in the workplace is quite low.” For example, Texas is the only state in the country that doesn’t require employers to cover workers’ compensation insurance.
The federation has also begun initiatives to reach immigrant workers beyond the job. “We came to this notion that you can’t stop representing your members when they go home from work,” Levy says. “Somebody who’s an immigrant, there’s no more important issue in their lives that affects their ability to work than a fair immigration system.” The 680 poultry-plant workers seized in immigration raids in Mississippi earlier this month included union members who had a contract, he notes.
Texas AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Montserrate Garibay “speaks of this work in a very authentic way,” he adds. A former prekindergarten teacher, she arrived in Austin as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City as a teenager and became a citizen 20 years later, in 2013.
One of its initiatives is helping immigrants who have “green cards” signifying that they are legal permanent residents—there are over 1 million in Texas—become U.S. citizens. The federation has done citizenship drives in coordination with its affiliates in seven or eight cities, and gotten a grant from the national AFL-CIO to continue.
“I volunteered at one, and this one guy who I helped do his application, he’d been a teacher for over 20 years, and had never took the step to become a citizen,” Levy recalls. “And that his union helped him take that step to become a U.S. citizen, where now he is a proud voter, and he registers people to vote—that’s why he wanted to become a citizen, to do that. That kind of work ripples through the community and helps us really build bridges.”
Part 2 will appear tomorrow.