Brothers and Sisters, welcome to the 58th Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention.
I’m going to focus my remarks today on the session of the Texas Legislature that ended just a few weeks ago and on the special legislative session that is coming.
But let me start by thanking each and every one of you. Thank you for this platform, which has enabled me to work with some of the greatest union activists in the nation on behalf of working families. Thank you for all the work you have done to represent union members. And thank you for all that you did to maximize our chances in the 85th Texas Legislature.
Make no mistake: the 140-day legislative session was the most miserable I have ever seen, a true disaster of commission and omission for working people. Yet because of your support and the support of our members and allies across the state, we need have no regrets about labor’s effort to minimize the damage and promote a Fair Shot Agenda in Texas.
This will not be a State of the Unions speech, but if it was, I would tell you that while we do not have the numbers we would like, the State of the Unions in Texas is strong. In the era of President Trump, Gov. Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick – who I hasten to add is no relation – unions are at the core of a mighty resistance in Texas. We even informally nicknamed our renovated building in downtown Austin “The Headquarters for the Resistance.”
That begs the question. What are we resisting? Let me offer three major examples.
First, we are resisting efforts to destroy our public education system. Hats off to Texas AFT, which leads the way on labor’s education policy and fights to the last comma for decent legislation. The Texas Senate approved a full-blown private school voucher bill this session. With Texas AFT and the United Labor Legislative Committee a key part of the anti-voucher coalition, that bill died once again in the Texas House. Texas AFT fought with success for retired teachers, for notice to parents when schools do not have essential resources, and for a better deal for the students who are our future.
Second, we are resisting discrimination in all its forms. Sometimes I have been asked why the labor movement jumps in so readily on civil rights and human rights issues. My answer comes in two parts.
Part 1: Discrimination ALWAYS affects workplaces. When Texas mistreats immigrants or the LGBTQ community, when our state fails to deploy resources to stop human trafficking and sordid housing for migrant farm workers, or when Texas promotes discrimination in the name of religion, your rights at work are implicated. The worst bosses exploit discrimination to keep working people from speaking up or even moving to a better job. The worst bosses aren’t willing to offer some benefits because of how they define what a “family” is or what an “employee” is. Discrimination is a slippery slope that, sooner or later, will always show up in your work space and in your paycheck.
Part 2: Discrimination is just plain wrong. You know this in your heart. To your credit, the labor movement in Texas recognizes that we must be in the vanguard of those who stand in the way whenever our lawmakers walk the backwards path. That is why we fought SB 4, the “Show Me Your Papers” law. SB 4 is about political gain, not the false assertion that immigrants are damaging our economy or our society. That is why we fought SB 6, the “Bathroom Bill,” which is completely unnecessary and threatens good jobs in our state. That is why we opposed the ongoing effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to give states more power, including the power to nullify federal laws. The last time states tried nullification, we had slavery and a Civil War.
In my heart of hearts, I know the labor movement has an important role to play in building a better society. But more than that, if we were to leave the playing field and abdicate our role in civil rights, I believe strongly it would be the beginning of the end for us. How can we be the cutting edge in achieving just rewards for labor if we are not also the cutting edge in seeing to it that every last working person has the opportunity to participate in those rewards? Without civil rights for all, labor’s mission is corrupted. We must never, ever let discrimination win.
Third, we are resisting direct efforts to harm labor unions in Texas. In a warped way, we should take anti-union bills as a compliment. They tell us that we are a thorn in the side of those who would hold down the aspirations of working people. Whether the folks who are after us are Empower Texans, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, or the National Right to Work Foundation, or the National Federation of Independent Business, or legislators who just plain despise us, we should celebrate the fact that in all our decades as a target, we have survived. Our fundamental ideas live, breathe and will one day prevail because they are right for working people, right for Texas and right for our nation.
We resisted – and we killed – SB 13, the Paycheck Deception bill. You will hear much more about this direct attack on public employees in Texas, but let me say that if 2015 represented the United Labor Legislative Committee’s “finest hour,” 2017 made it ULLCO’s “finest two hours.” This time, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – still no relation – made the bill one of his top priorities. This time, Gov. Greg Abbott included SB 13 in his State of the State speech. This time, the bill flew out of the Texas Senate with two full months left in the legislative session instead of, as in 2015, two weeks left. Yet as I stand here, through our efforts SB 13 died in the Texas House.
Also dead: SB 75, an equally direct anti-union bill that would have required parental consent for a minor to join a labor union. Kudos to the United Food and Commercial Workers for their outstanding work in killing the bill. Just as dead: SB 452, which would have outlawed union-friendly Project Labor Agreements funded by the state even though no such agreement has ever existed. We salute Leonard Aguilar of the Texas Building Trades for his around-the-clock work against that anti-union piece of legislation.
None of our bill-killing success – or even the modest victory we enjoyed in supporting a new “Buy American” law for iron and steel on public projects – happened by accident.
We developed new resources alongside the AFL-CIO, including a Unity Table that brought unions and allies together, field work that let some of our critics and key on-the-fence legislators know that working people were watching, a souped-up digital strategy, and a redoubling of the coordination among unions and messaging that served us so well in 2015. On this and other issues, I want to commend:
Rick Levy for his superb strategic and tactical leadership in a fight against the odds;
The Texas AFL-CIO directors and staff, along with the entire cast of characters in ULLCO, who worked every day on this and every other labor topic; and
For singling out, some folks who weren’t yet with us in the Great Stand of 2015, but who made a huge difference this year on SB 13, including Campaigns Director Jeff Rotkoff, Field Organizer Kara Sheehan, Digital Strategist Mark Maldonado, temporary Field Organizers Jessica Wolff and Cassidee Griffin, and Unity Table Communications Director Rachel Rekowski.
So why can’t we celebrate? Why is the only question I must ask of all of you, “What have you done for me lately?”
As you know, Gov. Greg Abbott has called the Legislature back for a special session starting July 18.
The topics of that session will include, once again, Paycheck Deception. I won’t put rose-colored glasses on this: The effort to take away the freedom of state and local employees to support the labor organizations of their choice through payroll dues deduction has a very real chance of becoming law even with our best effort against it. We must fight again from Square One.
But let’s face realities. The vast majority of Texans do not care about SB 13. I cannot claim with a straight face that it is a kitchen-table issue outside the world of labor unions and our antagonists.
Moreover, Gov. Abbott has included some very large topics that are of concern to all Texans. Once again, Abbott has included in the special session efforts to rig the tax system for the benefit of the wealthy, take power away from cities and hinder their progress, diminish the job security of teachers, enact private school vouchers, and monkey with elections. The special session is not just a fight about labor unions. It is a war for a better future.
In the legislative war ahead, I cannot imagine a better army to stand with than the union members in this room.
You will touch on many topics besides the Legislature as you make policy for the Texas AFL-CIO for the two years ahead. But your work is ultimately about the Legislature, which is the prime focus of any state labor federation. The help you provided at the last convention, including strategic planning and reinforcements for our political education program, paid off at our most crucial moments.
We have to fight again, and soon. I have confidence each and every one of you will step up and shine. Let’s have a great Convention.