Labor Legislative Update - July 24, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel
Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

July 24, 2021 — #25

Special Session Edition, Day 17

Time, time time, see what's become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities

—From “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon and Garfunkel, as we desperately seek to stay cool while the calendar pages fall away in a special legislative session. The Bangles’ brilliant cover of the iconic original:

Caught in between, it comes back to
You and me running out of time
I gotta find me a better understanding
Everything keeps forgetting what's mine
I gotta find me a way, less-demanding
And we're holding on so tight, together all of our lives

—From “Ever Changing Times,” written by Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach and Bill Conti, and performed by Aretha Franklin:

Time’s A-Wastin’ – Nothing much happened. The special session is past the halfway mark of its maximum limit, and enough House Democrats remain in Washington, D.C. to wait out the end of the session in early August, killing all pending bills. Democrats vowed to go the distance. Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to call another special session immediately. Important looming deadline: On Aug. 20, employees of the legislative branch, including many members of the Texas State Employees Union, would begin to lose pay if nothing is done to overcome Abbott’s veto of legislative funding. A lawsuit filed by the Texas AFL-CIO, Democrats and employees to render the veto invalid is pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

Ill at Ease – While the Senate has almost no more legislation to pass within the agenda set by the Governor, House leadership has kept the chamber “at ease” around the clock in hopes of reestablishing a quorum and doing business. The House has convened very briefly day to day in a signal that it is still in session.

Moment of Bipartisanship – Opal Lee, the intrepid Fort Worth activist known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth” for her work establishing June 19th as a state and, recently, a national holiday, was honored in a heartfelt resolution by the Texas Senate. Lee was recognized for her work on Juneteenth, the holiday that celebrates when Texas slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation (some two years after President Lincoln issued it). Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went a large step further, recommending Lee’s portrait join the gallery in the Senate chamber – a signal honor reserved for the likes of Barbara Jordan, Henry B. Gonzalez and a cast of other iconic Texas leaders. Lee, 94, did not pull punches when given the rare opportunity to address senators from the podium, declaring, “We’ve got to tell people what actually happened so it doesn’t happen again.”

The Resistance – While a couple Democrats returned from Washington, D.C., the holdouts have had to navigate six cases of COVID-19, forcing quarantines and an online strategy for holding meetings and making the case that Congress needs to pass federal voting rights legislation. The group got a big boost this week when Beto O’Rourke announced that Powered by People, a group he started, is donating $600,000 to cover the Democrats’ costs while on the road. And support from organized labor remained vital, with the Service Employees International Union Texas holding a weeklong voting rights conference that kept the discussion going.

Arbitration Win – We take happy note of a Houston Chronicle report that highly respected ULLCO member Marty Lancton, who leads the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, has been reinstated in his Fire Department job. Lancton was removed early this year, prompting the Texas AFL-CIO and Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation to protest. Via the newspaper: “This was nothing more than retaliation for speaking truth to power, doing what I swore to do,” [Lancton] said. “to speak for the firefighters and paramedics of the Houston Fire Department.” Details here:

Convening on the Issues – Check out the agenda for next week’s Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention, which will include panels on voting rights, the Legislature and other matters considered by the United Labor Legislative Committee (ULLCO):

The Basics

What does it mean to “stand at ease”? There seems to be a lot of it lately in the Texas House.

Not unlike its usage in the military, standing at ease in the Legislature is a ready state of inactivity, eyes ahead and ready to resume action. And yes, the Texas House has been standing at ease around the clock since Democrats broke quorum to stymie voter suppression and other legislation.

Does “standing at ease” during the quorum bust mean the House members who stay must remain in the chamber or its vicinity day and night? 

Technically, yes, but for practical purposes, no. Should a quorum of 100 members be attained, the House could resume its session at any time. But House Speaker Dade Phelan, reading the situation, has granted leave for members to be out temporarily, changing the color of passes for each day they are granted. 

Where does the notion of “standing at ease” come from?

Not a whole lot about it is explicit. Texas AFL-CIO Legislative Director René Lara scoured the rulebook and cites an explanatory note under House Rule 7, Section 4 describing the practice as a custom allowing lawmakers to “remain technically in session without continuing to transact business.” The power to “stand at ease” lies in the discretion of the Speaker (or, in the Senate, the Lieutenant Governor). 

Is “standing at ease” used in other situations?

Yes, routinely. Late in a 140-day session, lawmakers will sometimes stand around while an amendment is drawn up or while they are waiting for a bill or report to become eligible for debate. 

Why doesn’t the House just adjourn? 

Because doing so would mean absent Democrats could no longer be compelled by House rules to return to the House chamber. For now, it continues not to matter so long as a quorum-busting minority remains in Washington, D.C.

Bill Positions

Clarification: The Senate Finance Committee has approved SB 10, a labor-backed bill that would restore funding to the Texas Legislature following a veto by Gov. Greg Abbott. But the bill is sitting on the intent calendar and has not passed the full Senate.