Labor: Playing Defense
Thus far only a handful of formally labor-related bills have been filed for this session, and a couple are predictably punitive. Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, has filed House Bill 181, which seeks to prohibit local governments from operating "day labor centers," although it's selectively aimed at centers "used to facilitate the employment of aliens not lawfully present in the United States." Austin, of course, operates the successful First Workers Day Labor Center at 51st and I-35, which assists workers who would otherwise be hanging out at Home Depot or Lowe's competing for construction work and the like; Zedler's bill would seek to ferret out undocumented immigrants who might be among them, although it specifically excludes workers seeking "professional or clerical work" (better not offend any high-tech employers of immigrants). The city's government relations officer, John Hrncir, said the legislative liaison team is aware of Zedler's bill, but the city hasn't yet taken a position on it; those decisions are still under departmental review.
On the other side of the ledger, Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, has filed HB 238, which would add sexual orientation and "gender identity or expression" to the list of categories (e.g., race and religion) protected from employer discrimination, and Austin/Laredo Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini's SB 45 would provide employment assistance to people participating in certain Medicaid waiver programs. Villarreal's laudatory effort is a long shot, and though Zaffirini is a master at working the soft edges of public policy, further funds for already beleaguered Medicaid programs seem out of reach for this Legislature.
In this early period, rather than point to specific bills, Legal and Education Director Rick Levy of the Texas AFL-CIO foreshadowed larger labor fights likely to hit the Dome this session. He's anticipating "a huge fight" over public employee pensions, targeted for attack by business interests and their legislative friends, mostly among Republicans – although a few days after we spoke, Comptroller Susan Combs issued a report describing the state's public employee pensions as generally in good shape, perhaps undercutting that campaign. (The mayor of Houston tried and failed to find a sponsor for a pension-busting bill last session.) Labor is also concerned, Levy said, about another conservative push for public school vouchers, and about its flip side – whether there will be adequate support for public education, slashed last session.
"Of course, we're going to be fighting this stupidity that's already raised its head in the form of this drug testing for 'the 47%,'" he said, referring to Gov. Perry's endorsement of bills that would mandate drug tests for welfare applicants (Plano Republican Jane Nelson's SB 11) and for workers filing for unemployment insurance (not yet filed, but expected from Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands). "And we're always concerned, particularly with the rise of the extremism in the Republican Party," he continued, "about things like redistricting, voter ID, immigration – and there's always the threat of all-out attacks on union rights in Texas."