An extraordinary Saturday rally at Texas AFL-CIO headquarters connected precedent-setting union organizing victories in Austin with the need to get out the vote for the Nov. 8th election, with Sen. Bernie Sanders leading the charge.
Other headliners included the runaway leader in the Congressional District 35 contest, Greg Casar, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, and courageous organizers who have spurred workers to speak up together for union representation.
The Texas AFL-CIO and Austin Central Labor Council were proud hosts of the event, which drew more than 300 enthusiastic attendees, most of whom were young union members or allies. Sanders sandwiched the appearance between stops in San Marcos and the UT campus, then campaigned Sunday with labor-backed congressional candidate Michelle Vallejo in the Rio Grande Valley.
The organizers, introduced by emcee Lorraine Montemayor, Texas AFL-CIO Mobilization & Campaign Coordinator, took turns discussing union breakthroughs at their workplaces.
Keenan Baker of UNITE HERE Local 23, who works at Hilton Austin, the first unionized hotel in the city, said unionizing needs to be contagious.
“Since unionization, we have begun to lay the groundwork on things such as better pay and affordable housing,” Baker said. “I have indeed seen the change. It is frequent and it is rapid…Hear me now and hear me clear, everybody. The City of Austin, the State of Texas, we are playing the biggest game of life right now. Seize this opportunity…Make this count.”
Kellen Gildersleeve, a registered nurse and key organizer at Ascension Seton Medical Center, which recently became the largest private Texas hospital to go union, said, “For years, skeptics had told me that it was impossible to form a nurse union in Texas. Some even mistakenly tried to inform me that it was illegal…I am so proud that we were able to prove them wrong with a landslide victory of 72 percent ‘yes’ votes.”
Gildersleeve thanked the Texas AFL-CIO, Austin Central Labor Council, City Council member Vanessa Fuentes, and Casar for the solidarity that helped nurses to the certification win. She tied the Nov. 8th election directly to organizing, saying, “Codifying protections for workers into law is going to be essential in the coming years as we continue to breathe life back into unions in this country.”
Tovah Moriarty, an organizer with Integral Care, a Travis County operation that provides mental health services, said staff turnover in the five years before organizing took place had been “through the roof.”
“I’ve watched people come into this job passionate about the work they were doing only to get so burned out that they left the mental health field entirely,” Moriarty said. “I’ve had clients talk to me about how they are losing trust in the mental health system as a direct result of services they have gotten from Integral Care…So we started talking with each other about how things could be better…When I first started organizing, I thought that unionizing Integral Care was impossible, but impossible things happen every day because people decide to stand together and fight.”
Moriarty said full unionization through United Workers of Integral Care in the last year has afforded workers the ability to improve conditions for workers and clients, “and we’re just getting started.”
Henry Epperson, a member of Restaurant Workers United who helped organize VIA 313, a Detroit-style pizza restaurant that saw one of its locations certify the union last week, said management stood in the way at every turn.
“They withheld benefits, they willfully terminated supporters and organizers within our stores, and they created a toxic environment that they hoped would drive out supporters they couldn’t outright fire,” Epperson said. “Did that stop us? Two days ago, we won an historic election at our North Campus location. And with that, we have organized the first independent union for restaurant workers in the South.”
Lillian Allen, a barista at Starbucks, said, “I make $15.75 an hour but I’d probably still be making $12.50 if back more than a year ago, baristas in Buffalo, New York, hadn’t gotten together and said, ‘You know, we should do this union thing.’ Those workers stood together and across the country, baristas stood up with them. Together, we were able to do things that we had never imagined would be possible.”
Allen noted Starbucks now has more than 250 stores unionized with Starbucks Workers United across the U.S.
“So much is possible when we stand together…We can unionize a fast-food chain, we can elect people to government who actually care about the people they serve, who actually care about working families in Texas….”
Traci Dunlap of Education Austin, a Vice President of the Austin Central Labor Council (and Texas AFL-CIO Executive Board), pointed up AFSCME’s recent wins by city employees who gained a $20 minimum wage and by county employees, who gained a policy providing eight weeks of parental leave.
“Local elections are important, y’all!” Dunlap said. “Please get to the polls and use our union power to elect candidates who stand with us.”
Dunlap discussed Education Austin’s advances, including a $2,000 retention bonus for all Austin School District employees, more planning time for elementary school teachers, won a higher district minimum wage, and garnered pay for required training taking place outside school hours. The next fight, Dunlap said, will be for a pay raise, and much will depend on the results of Austin school board elections.
Dunlap also pointed to the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade, which led to a Texas AFL-CIO resolution supporting reproductive rights that started with the Texas AFL-CIO Women’s Committee.
Sanders began his remarks by discussing organizing in Austin.
“Let me congratulate all of those who have stood up, fought back, and created new unions in Texas,” he said. “The good news is that all over this country, we are seeing an unprecedented level of union organizing. We haven’t seen this for decades. The reason for that is pretty clear: People are sick of working 40 or 50 hours a week and falling further and further behind while the billionaires are making out like bandits.”
The Senator launched into a discussion about economic inequality that has become his hallmark (three persons now own more than the bottom 50 percent of Americans, he said). But Sanders said the Nov. 8th election is about more than economic issues.
“And as a United States Senator, honest to God, I never thought I would have to say this,” Sanders said. “This is not an election about your views on education…it’s not your views on prescription drugs. It is a question of whether or not we remain a democracy…Too many people — brave men and women from Texas, Vermont and all over this country — fought and died for American democracy and we’re not going to let right-wing extremists take that away.”
In celebrating organizing wins, Casar discussed his own background as an organizer with the Workers Defense Project and how he used the knowledge he gained to make progress while a member of the Austin City Council.
“And if there’s something I’ve learned…as an organizer, it’s that the power in this state rests with working people, with you all here at this event, not with the mega-corporations or the far-right politicians they pay off,” Casar said. “We are, you all are, the working Texans, not the kleptocrats.”
Casar said the fight to change Texas and lift up working people includes the Nov. 8th election but does not end there.
“The honest truth of the matter is that this will not be quick, this will not be easy,” Casar said. Calling Texas not “red” but “unorganized” and noting the effects of gerrymandering and dark money, Casar said, “I want to be real with y’all that this will take a longer struggle than any one, two, or three elections. The barriers are high but the stakes are so much higher, and that’s why we can’t give up, we can never give up….”
Doggett discussed the importance of voting all the way down the ballot in the likes of school board and community college elections. And he offered a weather-related take on the labor-backed effort to defeat Gov. Greg Abbott.
“All of us have been warned as we grew up about avoiding fair-weather friends. Well, with Greg Abbott over here,” Doggett said, pointing diagonally to the Governor’s Mansion, “we have kind of a fair-weather Governor. You know, if it’s too hot or too cold, you can’t even count on your lights being on. We have a chance to do something about that. I believe when labor wins, America wins.”
Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy put the mission of voting and helping turn out the labor vote into a big picture, reiterating that if we change Texas, we change our nation, and if we change our nation, we change the world.
“Let us remember, that when we organize, we can win. And when we vote, we can win. But when we organize and we vote, we will win!”
Levy was also quoted by CBS Austin:
“I’m telling you, the main message that I would have for people is that just because things are not good now doesn’t mean that they always have to be this way,” Levy said. “Politics is how we write the rules that we all live by. If we sit aside and let other people write the rules, we’re going to continue getting what we’re getting. We can make a difference, we can make our voices heard, and we can make our lives better if we get out and vote.”
See CBS Austin coverage: https://tinyurl.com/ynsrbxt6