Labor Legislative Update - July 17, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

July 17, 2021 — #24
Special Session Edition, Day 9
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without wings, without wheels
Roam if you want to
Roam around the world
Roam if you want to
Without anything but the love we feel

—From “Roam,” by the B-52s.

On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We're the best of friends
Insisting that the world keep turning our way
And our way
Is on the road again
I just can't wait to get on the road again
The life I love is makin' music with my friends
And I can't wait to get on the road again
—From “On the Road Again,” by Willie Nelson. Highwaymen live version:

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Quorum Break — The large majority of Texas House Democrats traveled to Washington, D.C. with a twofold mission: break quorum to stop voter suppression legislation and build support in Congress for national legislation protecting voting rights. Without a quorum, the House may not do business. Democrats conceded the tactic is a last resort that may not be sustainable in the long run. They vowed to wait out at least the current special session, slated to last three more week. Referring to democracy, Democrats said in a statement, “We are living on borrowed time in Texas.” The House formally called back members (about the only thing they can do, along with daily prayers, while a quorum is absent), enabling state law officers to “arrest” absentees for the purpose of bringing them to the chamber. But Democrats are beyond the reach of House sergeants-at-arms and state law officers so long as they are outside the state.

What’s at Stake? The Senate passed SB 1, a version of ULLCO-opposed voter suppression legislation from the 140-day session, which itself ended with a Democratic walkout. The Senate has also passed other ULLCO-opposed bills that fell short in the regular session on transgender student participation in scholastic sports and on dictates involving how questions of slavery and race are taught in social studies classes. Another measure reported to be on tap for addition to the special session agenda: a bill to bar local governments from enacting workplace protections.

Artificial Sweeteners — The Senate approved agenda items that appear calculated to increase political pressure on Democrats. These include a bill to pay for the legislative branch of state government after Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed all funding in the next budget. (The Texas State Employees Union reports that for technical reasons, more than 2,000 state employees will lose out on paychecks as of Aug. 20, rather than the actual Sept. 1 start date for the 2022-23 budget.) Also, the Senate approved a ULLCO-backed bill adding a one-time “13th check” for retirees in the Teacher Retirement System.  And senators approved a package of legislation providing some property tax relief for seniors and new home buyers. For most of the week, the Senate operated with 22 members, as nine Democrats joined the House members in Washington, D.C.

Crocodile Tears — Senate debate on the “13th check” drew plaintive GOP statements that if only Democrats had not busted quorum, the measure could become law and help retired teachers whose pensions have long been inadequate. Why are they inadequate? Because of a Legislature that has made them inadequate for decades. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo wasn’t having any of the Senate leadership choreography, arguing the “13th check” bill must be placed in its proper context: “Retired educators should not be used as pawns in divisive political debates and partisan fights. The governor and the Legislature had five months (not to mention all the preceding years) to support retired teachers and did nothing, but now they want to use political opportunity to cast blame elsewhere.” See more of Capo’s statement: 

Labor Deepens Alliance with House Democrats — The Texas AFL-CIO strongly supports the quorum break. “Gov. Abbott’s agenda for this special session is not about serious governing. Nothing about it speaks to the needs of working Texans…That is why we are proud of House Democrats for using every tool available to them to fight this sham session,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said. The national AFL-CIO has picked up on that theme, with President Rich Trumka hosting a news conference with Democrats and joining them for breakfast. Trumka likened the fight to stop voter suppression with the fight to enact the PRO Act and its return to democratic provisions for organizing unions. Trumka called the Democrats “heroes and heroines, every last one, in my opinion.” See coverage: And a photo:

Texas Union Activists Rise Up — The special session has seen a stream of legislator contacts, rallies and full-throated on-site advocacy by union activists at the Texas Capitol — a major step-up of hands-on action amid improved pandemic circumstances. Some 80 Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation members organized a Capitol visit on Tuesday and enthusiastic representatives of the Sabine Area Central Labor Council arrived Thursday. Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said the activity must and will continue: “It is so important for working people to make their voices heard in this process, and the best way to do it, even if it’s the hardest way, is to show up… We want the folks who support us to know we have their backs, and for those who don’t, we want them to know we’re here.”

Moody Loses Post — An outstanding friend of working families, State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, was stripped of his position as President Pro Tempore of the Texas House in the aftermath of the quorum break. House Speaker Dade Phelan has the authority to do so under House rules, though he acknowledged there is no provision at this time allowing the House to strip chairs or vice chairs of their committee leadership positions. The Texas AFL-CIO said Moody, as Sam Houston once suggested, had done right and risked consequences. The President Pro Tempore is a member of the Speaker’s leadership team and presides over the House in the absence of the Speaker. Moody tweeted as follows: “The most important titles in my life will never change: Dad, Husband, El Pasoan. Nothing political has ever even cracked the top three, so nothing has changed about who I am or what my values are.”

The Fight for State Employees — Attorney General Ken Paxton asserted in a filing at the Texas Supreme Court that Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of funding for the Legislature is a “political question” that the court may not adjudicate. Obnoxiously, he also claimed Democratic quorum-breakers were at fault for the veto, which was issued by Gov. Greg Abbott, not Democrats. All staffers, whether Democratic, Republican or non-partisan, will lose their their paychecks if funding is not restored and operations of the Legislature could be severely compromised. “Ken Paxton and Greg Abbott need to stop playing political games with the livelihoods of state employees,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said. “This ‘legal brief’ is bogus.” The lawsuit filed by the Texas AFL-CIO, Texas Democrats and state employees affected by the veto remains pending at this writing.

Do Something! — The Texas State Employees Union, which represents many of the legislative branch employees facing the possibility of losing their paychecks, has posted a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott calling on him to do whatever is necessary to reverse the veto of legislative funding. Sign it here:

What’s Next — Since the walkout and the quorum call, the Texas House has been in “stand at ease” mode, an around-the-clock status that leaves open the possibility of restoring a quorum. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the Senate has passed bills on almost all the topics included by Abbott in the special session call. Abbott is expected to add topics. It’s unclear how much activity will follow for as long as the quorum break lasts.

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The Basics

 What is a quorum?

A quorum is the smallest number of members of a governing board that may conduct business. The term is used in both public and private governance.

Who is a quorum?

Yes. Okay, without going all Abbott and Costello on you, that was a trick question. Merriam-Webster reports quorum is a Latin word meaning “of whom.” For you grammarians out there, it is the genitive plural of “qui,” or “who”. In legal parlance, Merriam-Webster states, quorum initially referred to the number of justices of the peace who had to be present to make rulings, but the use of the term has expanded.

 What determines the number needed to make a quorum in the Texas Legislature?

Article III, Section 10 of the Texas Constitution states, “Two-thirds of each House shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner and under such penalties as each House may provide.” That makes the Texas legislative quorum 100 of 150 Representatives and 21 of 31 Senators. It would take a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber to change the rule.

What’s all this talk of “arresting” House Democrats who broke quorum by leaving Texas during the special legislative session?

First off, it wouldn’t be a criminal arrest, but a form of civil detention. What could happen, at least in theory, is lawmakers may be detained by House sergeants-at-arms within the confines of the House to compel attendance during floor sessions. In the past, state police officers have been sent out to hunt for quorum-busting legislators in an effort to bring them back to the Capitol. Details of the workings of this process remain hazy, but the heavy weight of opinion is that while House members are outside Texas, they are beyond the reach of compelled attendance.

When might House Democrats come back?

That’s entirely up to elected Democratic lawmakers, who say they intend to wait out at least the duration of the current special session. Practical matters like families and livelihoods (including those of more than 2,000 staffers in the legislative branch) could intervene. Long shot: Congress could act to reinstate the federal Voting Rights Act, restoring some level of statutory protection against voter suppression. Ultimately, Texas lawmakers are coming back to Texas, but under what, if any, terms? The crystal ball is opaque on this one.

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Positions on Bills

OPPOSED SB 2 (and the slightly different SB 32) by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and its companion, HB 185 by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, a repeat of the regular session’s bill on transgender student participation in sports. SB 2 would require students to participate in scholastic and public college sports according to the gender they were assigned at birth. Testimony during the regular session indicated the University Interscholastic League has been quietly resolving these matters for years. The bill is a vehicle for discrimination that unnecessarily subjects trans-gender youth to a harsh spotlight.

OPPOSED SB 3 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, SB 19 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and HB 178 by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, all of which seek to dictate how Texas teachers may approach the question of race in the classroom. SB 3 and HB 178 are moves to undermine House amendments to HB 3979 during the regular session. Those amendments — perhaps the only decent pieces of that ULLCO-opposed bill — expanded social studies curriculum items to include such matters as the history of slavery and white supremacy, key documents associated with such figures as Sally Hemings, Frederick Douglass, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and Martin Luther King Jr., other aspects of Black, Latino and Native American history, and even labor history. SB 19 would require school districts to post monthly lists of teaching materials used in classrooms on the district website.