When a group of Texas workers started discussing job problems and what to do about them a few months ago, their list of complaints would have been familiar to Starbucks baristas, Amazon warehouse staff, or restive young journalists at new and old media outlets.
With little notice, their employer changed work schedules and transferred employees to a new job location. Some of those adversely affected applied for hardship waivers, based on family life disruption, but many requests were denied. Meanwhile, access to a major job benefit—tuition assistance—was sharply curtailed. Even paychecks were no longer arriving promptly or at the right address. When a few brave souls called attention to these problems, management labelled them “union agitators” who were trying to “mislead” their co-workers.
Operating outside the national media spotlight on recent labor recruitment in the private sector, key activists were not deterred. In mid-April, members of the Texas State Guard, Army and Air Force National Guard declared themselves to be the “Military Caucus” of the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America. Taking direct aim at Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has ordered thousands of them to police the U.S.-Mexico border, these TSEU supporters called for greater legislative oversight of such open-ended missions so that Guard members are called up only to “provide genuine service to the public good, not posturing for political gain.”
Their own mission statement announced that they will seek meetings with legislators, the governor’s office, and the state agency known as the Texas Military Department. Union goals include a guaranteed end date for all Guard members on state active duty, full restoration of tuition assistance slashed by Abbott, and immediate access to the same healthcare coverage as other state employees, along with state subsidized coverage “for our families while on Texas Military state mobilization.” To achieve these objectives, they pledged to “build a union which gets stronger with every new member we sign up” and coordinate with other state employees who have a “proud history of organizing” as part of the 8,500-member TSEU.
Hunter Schuler, a Texas Guard member and medic who helped initiate the effort, was one of those labelled an “agitator” for doing so. “None of us would be unionizing if our jobs didn’t suck and without all the negative aspects of the mission,” he says. “There’s not great mechanisms for getting problems to the attention of the top leadership any other way.”
Thanks to a U.S. Department of Justice court filing in January, Texas is not the only state where National Guard members are now organizing. District Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which is headed by Jody Barr, a veteran of the Connecticut Guard, is also opening its doors to Guard members called up for in-state duty. AFSCME was one of four public employee unions that sought to clarify that a 45-year-old federal prohibition against unionization by uniformed employees of the U.S. Department of Defense, does not apply to Guard members like Christopher Albani, when operating under state control.
As a member of the 103rd Civil Engineer squadron, Albani helped his home state respond to natural disasters, public health crises, and other emergencies. But, as Barr points out, when Connecticut Guard members were involved in setting up field hospitals and distributing medical supplies as part of the state’s pandemic response, they “were not able to bargain over COVID-19 safety precautions, even though state employees they worked directly alongside were able to have a voice in COVID-19 testing and other necessary precautions.”
Operation Lone Star
It’s often said in the field of labor relations that unions don’t organize workers: bad bosses do. While the validity of that old saw is questionable, it’s certainly been true of a bad boss named Greg Abbott. Last year, with an eye toward his 2022 re-election campaign, Governor Abbott launched Operation Lone Star. This $2 billion a year attempt to police the U.S.-Mexico border with Texas Guard members was necessary, he claimed, because the Biden Administration was failing to do so with the Border Patrol.
Viewed by many as a political stunt, Abbott’s sudden mobilization of 10,000 Guard members took them away, with little notice, from their regular jobs or shorter-term duty in pandemic relief efforts. Nearly 1,000 of the citizen soldiers affected applied for hardship waivers, citing family responsibilities or their civilian work as first responders. A quarter of these requests were denied because, as one Army National Guard veteran explained, “for this mission, if you had a warm pulse, they were sending you to the border. They didn’t care what your issues were.”
Adding insult to injury was the seemingly pointless nature of border duty itself. Its main initial risk was COVID outbreaks among troops packed together in trailers in groups of 30 each. As TSEU reports, “members reported being assigned to 12-hour shifts, which they spent sitting in a Humvee or walking around near an observation post, waiting for something to happen.”As one soldier assigned to a post near Brownsville explained, “If someone comes up, we ask them to stop and wait, we call the Border Patrol. If someone runs, we call the Border Patrol. We’re basically mall cops at the border.”
On April 22, Abbott’s mission resulted in its first direct fatality. On a treacherous stretch of the Rio Grande river, Specialist Bishop Evans saw several migrants struggling in the water. The 22-year old African-American from Arlington, Texas, stripped off his body armor and dived in to save them. They survived but Evans was swept away while trying to do, without proper training or equipment, what a local mayor called a “good deed.” At least four other deaths—in the form of suicide—have been reported among soldiers whose mental health problems or financial pressures were exacerbated when they were sent to the border or faced deployment there.
Meanwhile, Abbott’s administration has sharply reduced one of the main incentives for young people like Evans to join the Guard. While the governor was boasting about Operation Lone Star on Fox News and fending off a Republican primary challenge from two other right-wing Republicans, he cut the budget for tuition assistance for Guard members in half, from $3 million to $1.4 million. Previously Guard members, working full-time toward a graduate or undergraduate degree, were eligible for tuition reimbursement amounting to $4,500 per semester. That award was reduced to $1,000 for only about 714 Guard members. In addition, as TSEU Organizing Coordinator Missy Benavidez explains, the state’s involuntary, year-long call-up order was highly disruptive for soldiers trying to be part-time students. Some were forced to withdraw from classes in mid-semester; others had paid to pay out of pocket for courses they planned to take, or take out loans.
Second coming of the ASU?
If the U.S. Army ever reneged on the education benefits–much touted by military recruiters as a reason for young men and women to enlist—any soldier agitating for a union in response would face criminal prosecution. That’s because workplace organizing among active duty GIs during the Vietnam era, became so potentially disruptive of “good order and discipline” that Congress outlawed membership in any “military labor organization,” with the penalty being five years in jail. Before that crackdown, one organizational expression of widespread discontent among draftees fifty-years ago was the American Servicemen’s Union. The ASU issued membership cards, formed local chapters on military bases and on naval vessels, and published a national newspaper. Among its organizational models were already existing soldier associations in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, West Germany and the Netherlands (where a union of conscripts won higher pay and reforms of the military penal code). Among ASU’s own demands was the right to elect officers and reject what soldiers might deem to be illegal orders.
TSEU volunteer Hunter Schuler is definitely not in the mold of Army private Andy Stapp, founder of the ASU, who was court-martialed twice for his radical activism at Fort Still in Oklahoma during the late 1960s. Guard member organizing by TSEU and AFSCME follows more in the footsteps of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which voted in 1976 to amend its constitution to permit the recruitment of active duty service members, helping to trigger the Congressional ban enacted the following year (with the bi-partisan support of Senators Strom Thurmond and Joe Biden). Schuler’s civilian job is deputy clerk for the Supreme Court of Texas. He has a master’s degree in statistics and plans to pursue a doctorate program in that subject at Southern Methodist University.
“I don’t really have any prior experience with unions,” he told me. “Ideologically, I think of myself as pretty conservative, leaning to the right.” In that respect, he has much in common with other “young, adult males who join the military” and “are pretty unfamiliar with unions in Texas.” As a recruiter for TSEU, Schuler has had to reassure some new dues-payers that the union was “not just a bunch of Democrats who want to get Beto O’Rourke elected” (although TSEU has endorsed O’Rourke’s general election challenge to Abbott in November).
In Texas and other states, the Guard is typically called out, with much popular appreciation, to help with disaster relief efforts or public health emergencies. On other occasions, it gets drawn into policing. In 1986, for example, a Democratic-Farm Labor governor sent Guard members to protect strikebreakers at the Hormel meat-packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. Thirty-four years later, another DFL governor in the same state deployed Guard members in Minneapolis and St. Paul during Black Lives Matters protests over the killing of George Floyd. And a year ago, the Guard was again posted on Twin Cities street corners, along with local police, in anticipation of renewed civil unrest in the event that former police officer Derek Chauvin was acquitted of Floyd’s murder. When CWA Local 7250 President Kieran Knutson learned that one unit, with 50 soldiers and 15 armored vehicles, was operating out of the St. Paul labor center last April, he decided that “our union hall should have no place in those militarized efforts against the Black community, activists, and working-class people.”
A group of concerned trade unionists from CWA, the Minnesota Nurses Association, and United Brotherhood of Carpenters gathered at the labor center to demand that the Guard members leave. According to Knutson, they spoke one-on-one with the soldiers based there, who were mainly white and from rural areas of the state. The union activists urged them “to break ranks and join the anti-racist movement sparked by murders of Black people by the police.” Guard officers ended the fraternization quickly by ordering that the armored vehicles be loaded up and the labor center evacuated.
Knutson has friends, relatives and fellow CWA telephone workers who served in the Guard, the Reserves, or active duty military. His national union, headed by Air Force veteran and former New York telephone worker Chris Shelton, has promoted membership participation in a Veterans for Social Change program, which collaborates on political education and training with Common Defense, a progressive veterans’ group. As a Teamster member, working for UPS in Chicago 20 years ago, Knutson saw Vietnam veterans who belonged to IBT Local 705 strongly support a resolution against the war in Iraq, introduced by left-wing activists in the local. “I think we need to engage with people in the National Guard,” Knutson says. “Because who they are and the role they play is different than full-time police officers and prison guards even when they are called out to defend the status quo.” His hope is that unionization efforts like TSEU’s might lead to “more potential solidarity between the Guard and people on the street or on strike.”
In Texas, TSEU has long been a vehicle for solidarity among state workers of all types that is not limited to legally defined “bargaining units” of the sort found in states where public sector unionists can engage in formal contract negotiations. Formed 43 years ago, TSEU was a pioneering “non-majority union” in the open-shop environment of the South and Southwest. Its members learned to build workplace organization, based on voluntary payment of membership dues and rank-and-file activism, long before the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Janus decision five years ago, put all public sector unions to that new stress test.
Both white-collar and blue-collar state workers of any rank can join, in any state department, agency, or the Texas university system campus. (When longtime progressive activist and writer Jim Hightower was Texas Agriculture Commissioner, an elected position, he was a card carrying TSEU member). As former TSEU lead organizer Jim Branson explains, “We have a voice on the job because we are an active and growing movement that puts a lot of emphasis on organizing. We have agency caucuses, made up of union activists, who meet regularly to formulate goals and plan actions for winning those goals. From time to time, members of the caucus will meet with agency heads to discuss our goals, and when the legislature is in session, caucus members will speak directly to lawmakers…If a united group of workers act like a union, they can have a voice on the job. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
One of the things that makes Guard member recruitment a particular challenge is the nature of military service and the degree of management control over this particular group of state employees. “The Texas Military Department is not like a 9-to-5 employer,” Schuler notes. “When soldiers are on state active duty, TMD controls every aspect of your life. Even if they don’t do something that’s obviously retaliatory, there’s a lot of things they can do to make your life miserable, without overtly breaking the law or demoting you.” So far, he notes, “we don’t have union stewards or representatives you can call.” Yet, by forming a statewide solidarity network and generating much favorable publicity, Schuler and others have already demonstrated that military-style teamwork and “esprit de corps” can be put to better use than the border guard duty that led them to organize. “The idea [of unionizing] started as joke,” he told Military.com. “But now we have a real opportunity to make the lives of soldiers better.”
Featured image: Members of an Air National Guard unit from Syracuse, NY load water onto a truck, to be distributed in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, 2012.