In Winter Storms, Texas Leadership Failed

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy issued the following statement:

Texas leadership failed working families before, during and after the winter storms. The people government is supposed to serve suffered mightily and, in some cases, face a bleak future without further action.

There is no other way to account for a winter catastrophe in which power, water and other infrastructure failures left millions to hold on for dear life.

In the alleged energy capital of the world, a young boy died of hypothermia, in his own home. Children shivered under the covers in record cold. Families dug latrines. People tried to warm up and maintain contact with the outside world from their parked cars, if they have them, though some did it the wrong way and suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. Homes became uninhabitable, even after the temperatures rose. Poor families, working poor families and families of color, as usual, suffered disproportionately. This time, millions more were introduced to the experience of being on our own with useless resources and no place to turn.

As with the pandemic, as with the distribution of vaccines, as with the reliance of the often-unreachable Unemployment Insurance system because of 1980s computer technology, as with a foster care system under federal court orders, years of knowing neglect by political leadership who rely on reactionary partisanship that shortchanges working people made us worse off. Once again, because too many politicians believed “free markets” would prevail, failure ensued: The lights went out, the heat vanished, the taps had no water and the help we expect was stuck in triage mode.

For too many working families, the disaster is far from over. Already, reports of eye-popping utility bills are in the news. Repairs of broken pipes, roof damage, indoor flooding, and other results of ice and snow storms might take months. Price gouging has surfaced and fly-by-night operations and scam artists are emerging to wreak further havoc. Families are boiling what water they have, and many grocery shelves are picked bare.

State government failed us. Misdirection was our leadership’s first resort. Until they were called out, the Governor and an unfortunately long list of public officials decided to make this tragedy a talking point against an un-enacted Green New Deal. When the blowback arrived, our leadership understood, at long last, that Texans are catching on to the game.

Local government might have displayed some shortcomings, but by and large local officials were in the field around the clock putting out good information, connecting people to resources and, as they could, engaging in hands-on action. These elected officials could not make everything right, but they at least sent a signal they were trying.

What about state officials? This catastrophe produced the exploding Internet meme “Where is Greg Abbott?” We would ask the same about other statewide elected leaders except for Sen. Ted Cruz, because everyone knows where he was. While a progressive New York politician that some Texas politicians love to attack was raising $5 million, and counting, for Texas storm victims, Cruz was headed to warmer climes. His colleague John Cornyn was likewise nowhere to be found. And Attorney General Ken Paxton was out of state – ducking the cold weather and perhaps federal anti-corruption investigators, too.

The storms showed us, yet again, that the federal government helps states in emergencies. The storms showed us that, contrary to the fantasy of Rick Perry that Texans would prefer to freeze in their homes rather than give up even an ounce of pretend energy autonomy, we really are all in this together. After seeing the nation come to our aid, it is more of a disgrace than ever that some of our most cynical politicians snicker and feed the desires of energy moguls for larger profits every time other states have a power crisis.

Yet one session after limiting the ability of local elected officials to fund budgets, Gov. Abbott wants the legislature to treat state interference in local government as an emergency. Some lawmakers are bashing the federal government again, all the way down to a ridiculous proposal to vote on secession. Can we return to the recognition that before and after catastrophe strikes, the government closest to the people is vital? And that the federal government we are part of is not a force for evil?

We are concerned the Legislature may seek to call onto the carpet ERCOT, the PUC, the RRC and other alphabet soup entities, rearrange some chess pieces, and declare victory – all while passing the buck to consumers. But the failures in planning and execution by those entities were symptoms, not fundamental causes, of a larger malady. The deregulation bequeathed to our state by Enron has failed us. Even Gov. Abbott recognizes that, as suggested by his placement of mandatory winterization of power plants on the legislative agenda — it’s not “socialist”! 

The Texas AFL-CIO stands ready to support common-sense solutions to what we have just witnessed. We will be watching upcoming legislative hearings for:

  • A focus on helping people who face months or even years of suffering from storm damage and who could face further damage from rules that are rigged against them. This includes immediate and ongoing help to make sure no one goes without food, drinkable water, or the ability to access expert repairs in as timely a fashion as possible; 

  • Acceptance of responsibility by the state for what has transpired and a genuine commitment to address the root causes of the catastrophe; and

  • Recognition that hands-off policies toward utilities makes our state vulnerable to crises. How we ended up with a system devised by Enron, a symbol of disgrace we can’t seem to get past, is beyond us.

But the biggest change our state needs is a shift away from the notions that the people of Texas can go it alone and that government is always the problem.

We can’t end this statement without once again recognizing how front-line and essential workers who came through mightily to fight COVID-19 again excelled during the storms. Health care workers who somehow made it to hospitals, First Responders who somehow made calls to the most urgent life-and-death situations, plumbers and electricians who stayed in the field through exhaustion, supermarket workers who were at their stores so the public would have a better chance to get by, volunteers who staffed warming centers, and all who went in to essential work and maybe even slept at work for days at a time still deserve priority, for vaccinations, for pensions, for better health and safety measures, and for an array of policies that enable them to support families. Texans understand that treating front-line workers well connects to preparation for the worst emergencies, now more than ever.

Working families cannot have a fair shot at better lives if the alleged energy capital of the world cannot stay warm and safe in a winter storm. Climate change is real. These types of events are becoming more frequent, not less so.

We need government to work for all of us.