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Texas AFL-CIO president outlines 2023 legislative priorities and concerns

Ryan E. Poppe

As the Texas legislative session gets underway, and as union representation in the state grew by nearly 70,000 workers between 2021 and 2022, labor unions are pushing for their legislative priorities with increased energy.

The Texas AFL-CIO, which has more than 240,000 affiliated members, has proposed its Fair Shot Agenda — a collection of aspirational and more immediately viable legislative priorities for the 2023 session.

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy explained the major goals the union has for this session.

“It’s education, it’s job training, it’s state employees, it’s expanding wages,” he said. “And so all of those are very doable in this economic climate.”

That economic climate is one in which the state has a nearly $33 billion budget surplus, though preliminary budgets recently released by the Texas House and Senate have left more than $50 billion on the table.

Levy also explained why he was hopeful some of the bills with union support could get across the finish line.

“For the first time in a long, long time, they will not have the excuse that we just don’t have any money to do some of the things that really need to happen,” Levy said. “To fully fund public education, to catch up in terms of state employee salaries.”

The House and Senate’s preliminary budgets did include $1.8 billion for state employees, a pool of money Levy said needs to rise given the understaffing at state agencies that deal with foster care, child protective services, and disability support services.

“The services have deteriorated to such an extent that we’ve read about scandal after scandal and agencies that [have] just been neglected and underfunded,” Levy said.

Levy also wants to see a raise for teacher salaries and pensions, which he said have been stagnant for too long.

Another core piece of the Fair Shot Agenda is job training.

“The second thing I think is really important is investing in our apprenticeship programs,” Levy said. ”These folks who don’t necessarily see their path by going to college but who can learn a trade and do it in a way that is self-sufficient, doesn’t incur debt, and sets people up for lifelong economic success.”

The Texas AFL-CIO’s agenda also includes eliminating policies. Non-compete clauses are one of those policies.

Non-compete clauses are pieces of some employment contracts where an employee is prohibited from working for a competitor of their current employer for a certain period of time after leaving their company.

In December, a bill was filed to ban these clauses for low wage-workers. But a proposed rule from the Federal Trade Commission to ban all non-compete workers might grant pro-labor forces a policy win without even having to pass a bill.

The logo for the Texas AFL-CIO's Fair Shot Agenda.
The logo for the Texas AFL-CIO's Fair Shot Agenda.

Employers say the clauses are a way to protect trade secrets from competition, but critics — which now includes the FTC — say the clauses are often imposed on low-wage workers and act as a tool to suppress wages and limit worker opportunity.

The FTC proposal is currently in the public comment stage, and the rule has received heavy pushback from business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has argued the FTC lacks the legal authority to ban non-compete clauses.

Another bill supported by the union is SB67, which would establish a database of companies found to have committed wage theft that would then be banned from entering into contracts with the state.

“Employers have become very sophisticated in their ability to form and reform and set up structures to evade responsibility,” Levy noted. “This database is one really important tool where, if an employer is found to have engaged in wage theft, that information is made available both as a deterrent and also so that other entities that may or may not want to enter into relationships with companies who do that would be advised of that.”

The Texas AFL-CIO is also continuing the pressure for a $15 minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, and paid sick time, despite the improbability of any of those efforts succeeding in a Republican-controlled statehouse.

Levy said the Texas AFL-CIO was very concerned about efforts by the legislature to override local authority by overriding certain municipal ordinances, like one in Austin and Dallas that mandates rest breaks for workers in the heat or others that regulate payday lenders.

“I think this whole issue of concentrating power among a few politicians in Austin and substituting that for the judgment of thousands of officials elected across the state is a really dangerous thing we’re seeing,” he said.

He also said he saw a major threat to public education in this year’s legislative session.

“I think the second thing that is very troubling today and continues to be troubling is the governor and the lieutenant governor focusing on draining the public school budgets and giving it to private schools in the form of vouchers. That is something that is an existential threat to the public education system in this state.”

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to TPR's request for comment.

Despite the concerns, Levy said he saw hope in the rise of labor activity across the state.

“All across Texas, more and more people are forming unions, and I think that that is really portending a wave of the future here,” he said.

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