Fruits of Their Labor
How labor-related bills have fared this session
It's no secret that, in Texas, "good for big business" often means "bad for workers." But this legislative session, there's some union optimism about the home of tort reform. Texas AFL-CIO spokesman Ed Sills called it "the first session in a very long time where labor has gotten to defend a lot of things, rather than defending against them."
That said, the AFL-CIO has still had to fight off some anti-labor legislation. Nationally, the big question is the fate of the federal Employee Free Choice Act, relaxing some of the extraordinary burdens placed on employees wanting to join a union. At a state level as well, Sills said his union "killed some anti-Free Choice Act resolutions," such as House Concurrent Resolution 64 by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock. And when House Bill 1042 by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, came up before the House Technology, Economic Development & Workforce Committee, the AFL-CIO mobilized. The bill proposed ending the requirement that the Texas Workforce Commission use contractors offering the prevailing wage rate if it is higher than federal minimum wage. "We were able to pack the room, and that killed that in the House," Sills said.
Labor legislation is not just about bills directly affecting the workplace. Unions are eagerly watching the fate of children's health insurance reform, while retired state employees and teachers are waiting to see whether the House proposal for a one-time payment (known as the 13th check) survives the budget process. With many union members and nonmembers out of work, much attention was fixed on the ultimately unsuccessful push for unemployment insurance reform. Senate Bill 1569, the enabling legislation to get the extra $555 million in federal stimulus money, was stuck in House Calendars for a month. ("Somebody tagged it, I guess," explained sponsor Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.) When it finally reached the House floor on May 26, Republicans killed it by running out the clock for debate – a moot point, since Gov. Rick Perry would probably have vetoed it anyway.
So far, the biggest potential workplace victory could be HB 1657, spurred by the controversial 2007 decision by the Texas Supreme Court in the case of Entergy Gulf States Inc. v. John Summers. Summers, a contractor, was injured at an Entergy facility and sued the firm for negligence. The court ruled against him, interpreting workers' compensation law in an unprecedented manner to exempt the company from liability. In the Senate at press time, the legislation clarifies the definitions of "general contractor" and "subcontractor" in workers' compensation cases, closing the loophole the court had exploited. It was only a partial victory for labor rights: Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, said that while he still counts himself a tort reformer, the justices had clearly violated the legislative intent behind the current rules. "I cannot stand before you and accept a right-wing court making the law any more than I can stand before you and let a left-wing court make the law," he told his fellow lawmakers.
The biggest defeat for workers' rights could be over mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Business lobbyists have fought hard at the federal level to limit corporate liability for the disease, and tort-reform mavens like the Texas Civil Justice League and Texans for Lawsuit Reform fought against SB 1123. This bill simply provides a new legal standard to prove causation and liability, but after the Senate passed it 19-11 on April 20, it stalled in the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee.
The bulk of workplace legislation focuses on attracting and developing jobs, and Sills lauds the current legislative paradigm: Incentivize to hire; don't incentivize to fire. The principle applies particularly well to green-collar manufacturing. He explained: "I think part of that is to catch the shift in the economy before it happens. ... Someone entering business now is going to be the T. Boone Pickens of green jobs." He had particular praise for Austin Democrats Rep. Mark Strama and Sen. Kirk Watson, as well as for Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, for his solar-power incentives in SB 545. Although that fell victim to House chubbing, Sills applauded their consensus view that green-collar jobs "can be solid middle-class jobs."