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Texas National Guardmembers hold their first union meeting

A National Guardsman drinks water while sitting atop his Humvee along the border fence near the Rio Grande River in Del Rio, Texas Monday Sept. 20, 2021. More than 10,000 National Guard members have been deployed to the border in Operation Lone Star. (Via OlyDrop)Xxx Delrioborder004 Jpg
Ronald W. Erdrich/Abilene Report/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co
A National Guardsman drinks water while sitting atop his Humvee along the border fence near the Rio Grande River in Del Rio, Texas Monday Sept. 20, 2021. More than 10,000 National Guard members have been deployed to the border in Operation Lone Star. (Via OlyDrop)

Texas National Guardmembers held their first union meeting Monday evening in Del Rio. They unionized after facing a host of issues during an involuntary deployment to the border as part of Governor Abbott’s controversial border security program, Operation Lone Star.

They joined an existing union, the Texas State Employees Union, and met as the Texas State Employees Union’s Military Caucus.

Hunter Schuler, a Guard and union member, said union meeting attendees represented a breadth of military members.

“We also have officers commissioned officers who have enrolled in the union, as well as enlisted soldiers… we've basically got members who are in every single piece of the pie in the Texas military department,” he said. “That shows you that our issues cut across every demographic and every component of this service, these issues are affecting all of us.”

They spoke about organizing and recruiting new members, and improving the conditions of those deployed to the border. They also want to ensure soldiers are informed about their resources and benefits.

For the past year, Gov. Greg Abbott has amassed thousands of National Guard troops to the border as part of his Operation Lone Star program. The program enlists the guard along with the Department of Public Safety to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges.

But since the mobilization, troops have reported serious issues with the mission like living conditions, pay inconsistencies, gear shortages and unusually last-minute deployments.

These problems came to light after an Army Times article revealed that four soldiers associated with Operation Lone Star died by suicide in two months since their deployment.

Related: 'We are absolutely political pawns here' — Gov. Abbott condemned over mistreatment of National Guard

According to Schuler, the unionization stemmed from the Military Department’s failure to initially address issues resulting from the involuntary deployment.

“It'd be one thing if they were like, ‘Hey, yeah, we mobilized too fast and we shortchanged on equipment,’ or ‘We're gonna rectify that,’” he said, “Instead, you've got leadership that's acting like a petty ex-girlfriend. Just not taking us seriously.”

Two days after the unionization announcement, the Military Department loosened curfews and allowed soldiers to travel further without a pass.

Schuler said he hopes this means they’re listening.

He said leadership’s response has previously been focused on preserving the department’s image and getting Gov. Abbott reelected through misleading PR statements.

“You're not going to fool the guys who are actually here, you may fool your voting base back home," Schuler said. "But we know better. And it's kind of insulting.”

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

In an email, the Texas Military Department responded that it has no policy prohibiting employee membership in external support organizations.

Schuler said discussions over unionization began in late December but got more serious in late January after the Department of Justice announced that federal law allows Guardmembers on state orders, like Operation Lone Star, to unionize.

The Texas Military Department and Abbott insist they are addressing pay issues and gear shortages but Guardmembers say it’s still not enough.

In November, Gov. Abbott rushed the mass mobilization of 10,000 National Guard troops, or about half the entire state’s National Guard, to the border over only two months.

Critics and Guardmembers say there wasn’t sufficient preparation or infrastructure to handle such an unprecedented deployment and the troops are now suffering for it.

The deployment happened only three months before Abbott announced his reelection making Guardmembers apprehensive about his intentions. One of them stated that they “are absolutely political pawns.”

Although unionization in a conservative state may look bad politically, Schuler said their actions are entirely unrelated to the upcoming elections.

“This isn't some politically motivated endeavor, we're not out just to get Beto O'Rourke elected. That's not why we're doing this. We want better conditions, and we, you know, most of us want to go home,” he said.

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