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Texas Unions Eye Political Power

August 26, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Montserrat Garibay.

Part 2 of a two-part series on labor issues in Texas.

AUSTIN, Tex.—“Texas isn’t a state now where people just live out on the prairie with the tumbleweeds driving by,” state AFL-CIO President Rick Levy says. “It’s a heavily urbanized state, and in urban regions, progressive forces have a much greater influence and much greater power.” For example, Harris County, which includes Houston and its inner suburbs, has almost 4.7 million people, more than 25 states, and both Houston and Dallas are “completely Democratic-controlled.”

That urban-rural divide is now “the greatest fault line in Texas politics,” he says. “Where does the power lie—in cities or with the state? That’s going to be the defining battle for a number of years to come.”

In 2003, he explains, the state was one of the first to pass laws pre-empting local governments from raising the minimum wage, after an unsuccessful ballot initiative to increase it in Houston. In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill defining employees of app-based taxi services such as Uber and Lyft as independent contractors. This year, bills were introduced in the Legislature to pre-empt local anti-discrimination ordinances; environmental initiatives such as bans on fracking; payday-lending regulations; and the ordinances enacted by Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas that require employers to let workers earn paid sick leave. The sick-leave pre-emption bill passed the state Senate, but “we were able to defend that” and prevent it from getting through the House, he says. The Austin law is on hold, pending the outcome of a legal challenge. 

“Our goal this cycle is to actually take the Texas House,” Levy says. “That would allow us to have a Speaker that would represent our interests in all this legislative stuff, but also obviously for redistricting.” Democrats gained 12 seats in the 2018 elections, bringing the Republican majority down to 83-67, and he says there are 14 or 15 GOP-held seats within reach. 

Still, he adds, “it’s really important to build an independent political voice for our movement and not just be with the Democrats.” The AFL-CIO endorsed Republican legislators who helped stop attempts to eliminate dues checkoff for most public-sector workers, and initially did not support Democrat Beto O’Rourke when he ran for the Senate against Republican Ted Cruz in 2018.

Some unions had concerns about O’Rourke’s record, Levy says, and when he was invited to the federation’s Committee on Political Education convention, “he didn’t show up.”

To O’Rourke’s credit, Levy adds, he called and said “’You know, I screwed up. What do I need to do?’ I said, ‘You need to go talk to all these people in different parts of the state and find out what they care about, and if you do that, we’ll have another meeting, and we’ll reconsider.’”

He did, and the federation endorsed him—“but it was a process that I think reflected that we don’t want to be just taken for granted, we want people who are going to be our champions, not people who are just going to have a certain letter behind their name.”

The federation started talking to voters about what issues they cared about a year and a half before the 2018 election, Levy says, and “when it was time to turn out the vote, we had a relationship with them.” Statewide turnout rose to 46%, but among the people, “both members and nonmembers, that we actually spoke to in our get-out-the-vote effort, it was 83%. What it really demonstrated to us was that if you talk to people on a deep level about what’s going on in their lives, you can mobilize people to get involved.” 

The federation used those conversations to develop its “Fair Shot” agenda, announced in January. Levy describes it as a “constellation of issues.” It includes raising the minimum wage and public employee pay, strengthening collective bargaining, ending the misclassification of workers as independent contractors, and making sure every Texan is covered by workers compensation. It also calls for moving toward universal health care, voting rights, increasing funds for public education, and protecting workers regardless of their immigration status. 

“The biggest problem that we have is people feeling that politics is not something that can change their lives in a positive way,” Levy says. So unions need to demonstrate that it can “if they get involved and they get engaged,” and by delivering when they do.

For an anecdotal example, he cites a coach at the Austin gym where he works out. When told that the City Council had enacted a law that gave workers the right to earn paid sick leave, the man responded, “You mean the government’s actually going to do something that’s gonna help us?” 

Essential to achieving that change, he adds, is creating a “critical mass of people who understand what we need to do for the future.” At the Aug. 13 protest by LSG Sky Chefs workers outside American Airlines’ headquarters in Fort Worth, he says he was “so proud” that “not only were there people there from Austin and Houston and Amarillo, for God’s sakes, coming in to support those folks, but the Transport Workers were there, the Flight Attendants were there, the Teamsters were there. That’s the kind of movement we’re trying to build, that when one union has a struggle, everybody shows up. I think that’s happening more and more.”

August 26, 2019

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