Texans tell of organizing successes, urge more investment there, adoption of new techniques

SAN ANTONIO—What do you do when you’re trying to organize in a deep red union-hostile Southern state, where unionists are a minuscule percentage of the workforce, and where a right to work law – and attitude – looms over all?

If you’re an unionist in Texas, which fits that description, you seek out and link up with community groups and allies, use local elections to vote in progressive officeholders who can level your playing field, and look for more money from the AFL-CIO to expand your reach beyond the largest cities.

That’s what a panel of Texans told union leaders just before the federation’s Executive Council met in San Antonio in mid-March.

The panel had six unionists, including Montserrat Garibay, vice president of Education Austin, the joint AFT-NEA affiliate in the Texas capital. But also in on the discussion was retired AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, a Texan who also attended all the council’s sessions.

And the group told the leaders ab out the challenges and successes in organizing in the Lone Star State, saying they had applications that are useful nationwide.

Such initiatives may be necessary. Not only is Texas, the second-most-populous state in the U.S., one of the least-unionized, but union density nationwide has been falling ever since the 1950s, and steeply ever since the 1981 Reagan administration PATCO lockout.

And Texas is also a right to work state with hardline anti-union attitudes in the GOP-run state government, a situation that unions and workers also increasingly face around the U.S.

As a result, unions have made repeated pledges and efforts to organize in the South. But in the private sector – with several outstanding exceptions in North Carolina – most failed.

The solution? Coalition-building around bread-and-butter local issues, such as school quality, teacher pay and raising the minimum wage, say Garibay and Chavez-Thompson.

“We’re doing things a little differently here because of right to work,” Chavez-Thompson said in an interview. “But if you look at Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston and San Antonio, we’ve been able to elect Democrats” through coalition-building, to local office. Those Dems in turn, level the playing field for unionists.

Public sector unionists have especially benefited, even though Texas bans formal negotiations for a contract in most public sector cases, only permitting unions to “meet and confer” with management about workplace issues. AFT has close to 3,000 members in San Antonio, the Communications Workers have tens of thousands in state and local governments, and National Nurses United came in and organized South Texan hospitals, she said.

That’s why unionists turn to community groups to form alliances around those local issues, working from the grass-roots up, Chavez-Thompson said. Both she and Garibay suggest unionists elsewhere emulate that strategy.

The most-recent coalition came in protecting undocumented adults, Garibay said, successfully protesting federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and vowing to defend those whom ICE rounded up.

“The ICE raids were very detrimental to the safety of our students. They were worried about their families,” says Garibay.

“But unions helped us elect a Democratic major and to activate our members – and also to activate millennials, who want to be part of a social justice movement.”

Other successes were in raising the minimum wage in San Antonio to $13.75 hourly over a period of years and getting Houston officials to crack down on wage theft, which particularly hurts Latinos.

And those wins in turn build membership, as the millennials become interested in and join progressive unions in Texas such as Education Austin, AFSCME, the Communications Workers and the Electrical Workers, she says.

But that progress still leaves the Texan unionists with a problem common through the South. Its big cities “are blue dots in a sea of red,” both admit. They contend the linkages with community groups around local issues is one way to extend unions’ reach beyond the Houstons and San Antonios to the Wacos and Lubbocks of red states.

Another way is to take advantage of the union brand of government worker unions – notably the Government Employees (AFGE), the Letter Carriers and the Postal Workers – who have a presence everywhere, in post offices, military bases and other federal facilities. Have those union members, wearing their union shirts, organize and participate heavily in non-partisan non-political events and a favorable image of unions grows, the two contend.

But such moves can only go so far, they admit. To follow up on the initial momentum the alliances and the events create, the unions need organizers – and that means money. So the panel, by pointing out how Texas unions and the state AFL-CIO have done so much already with so little, would like more, Garibay said.

“We could be reaching those rural areas,” she adds. “But we don’t have the resources to do it.”

Source: PAI