State & Local Politics

Unions’ power play in Texas could signal trouble for other states

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Texas isn’t commonly associated with corrupt union bargaining, but the state’s biennial legislature shows how much power public unions wield. 

The unions’ formidable hold is in large part a result of a coalition government of Democrats and moderate Republicans who are more than willing to do union bidding. It’s a cautionary tale: “As Texas goes, so goes the nation.” If public-sector unions can obtain such power in the right-to-work, conservative state of Texas, they can do it anywhere.

For many sessions, Texas’s union-backed cohort has held conservative reforms hostage, making Republicans the biggest impediment to their own party’s agenda. This dichotomy leaves many taxpayer-friendly, pro-business reforms hanging in the balance: this includes ending government collection of union dues, reforming public employee pensions in two of the state’s largest cities, overhauling the abusive practice of civil asset forfeiture, and enacting legislation to allow for school choice.

In Texas, unions may not have the benefits that they find in states that aren’t right-to-work, but they can certainly still buy influence and use their tactics to advance their causes.

{mosads}According to recent campaign information from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, public-sector unions contributed over $1.6 million overall to state lawmakers in Texas during the 2016 election cycle. House Speaker Joe Straus was the second highest recipient of public employee union dollars of any state lawmaker in a Republican legislature, receiving just under $100,000. Though the bulk of it came during the most recent election cycle, Straus has received over $260,000 in union contributions in the last 10 years.


The Speaker has the authority to refer bills to committees of his choosing; those not in his favor often get referred to a committee chaired by one of his willing lieutenants, all but ensuring that the bill will never again see the light of day. This is why unions spend big to have him in their pocket.

During the last session, ending government collection of public employee union dues gained a lot of traction after tireless efforts by conservative activists and business groups. The bill excluded police, fire and emergency service workers, but would have forced other public employee unions to collect membership dues themselves, rather than having the government entity automatically deduct and remit the dues to the union.

After killing time with procedure, Straus referred the bill to the House Committee on State Affairs, chaired by longtime friend and consigliere Byron Cook. Cook used that opportunity to kill the bill by preventing it from ever getting a hearing in his committee. 

Straus was ushered into his leadership post through support of a small contingent of moderate Republicans and an overwhelming majority of Democratic House members. Since then he has been favorable to the desires of his progressive counterparts, and their union backers, in an effort to maintain his leadership position. 

In a report from Watchdog, Jon Cassidy writes, “Straus’ favor with public employee unions appears to be unique in American politics. There are no other Republican legislative leaders in conservative states who have found anything like that kind of union support, according to NIMSP’s records.”

But, Texas’s problem may not be so unique for long. Because of President Trump’s views toward labor, public-sector unions have said that they will be increasingly looking for ways to organize and advocate more forcefully on the state level.

During the 2016 campaign cycle, the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s second largest labor union, spent at least $60 million on politics and lobbying efforts, as well as another $19 million in the Fight for 15, their local movement to raise the minimum wage of fast food workers. At least 20 percent of the union’s budget went to politics. All this while revenues for the union dropped by $20 million, leaving it with a $10 million deficit. 

This doesn’t count additional money funneled through subsidiary groups, such as Texas Organizing Project, which, along with contributing politically, spends time organizing rallies, protests, marches and town halls. 

Their political spending isn’t the only thing that should draw concern: their organizing efforts are also coming under fire as of late. 

In a first of its kind case, a private company successfully sued the SEIU on the grounds that its deceptive tactics, used to organize the company’s workers and smear the organization’s name, caused the company significant monetary losses.

Professional Janitorial Services sued the union and the case dragged on for nearly a decade, until a Houston jury ruled in 2016 that the union’s actions were in fact responsible for PJS’s loss of business. PJS was awarded $8 million. The award amount forced SEIU Texas to seek bankruptcy protections.

With just over a month left in Texas’ 85th legislative session, time will tell if Republican leadership will continue to kill conservative reforms on behalf of their union backers, or if they will support the reforms they were elected to push forward. Regardless of the outcome in the Lone Star State, other states should take notice of the ability of unions to dominate legislatures in conservative states and distort the ability of taxpayers’ voices to be heard.


Charles Blain is the executive director of Restore Justice USA, a criminal justice reform project of Empower Texans. He campaigned for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2014 and has a background in public policy. Follow Blain on Twitter @cjblain10

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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