In case you thought our state’s right wing political machine was going to be satisfied imposing new regulations on abortion, harassing the state’s flagship universities and trying its best to destroy public education, there’s news out of Houston that sounds a clear warning about the extreme right’s upcoming legislative assault on Texas labor unions. In September, Professional Janitorial Services (PJS), which is owned by right-wing political funder Brent Southwell, won a $5.3 million judgment for libel against Service Employees International Union Texas (SEIU Texas). The company argued that SEIU had maligned its reputation during an organizing battle many years ago. With interest (the suit was filed nine years ago), the total amount exceeds $7 million.
By the way, it may seem hard to believe that a janitorial company would be willing to sue its employees’ union for libel, but PJS seems to be a very touchy outfit. As per The Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg in March 2014,
The National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against PJS in January , accusing the company, through its overbroad policies, of “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees” in the exercise of workplace rights – a charge the company has denied. Among other things, company policies restrict free speech, with one rule specifically banning employees from making “inflammatory or derogatory statements about the company.”
SEIU Texas, which was founded by Latina women in Houston and now represents some 18,000 working Texans, is appealing the ruling in the libel case. PJS wants SEIU to put up a $6.1 million appeals bond, while the union has requested an appeals bond at $100,000. Last week, SEIU Texas filed for Chapter 11 protection under federal bankruptcy laws, an effort to protect its assets while the state court case is appealed.
Yesterday, Chief Unites States Bankruptcy Judge David Jones rejected PJS’s request for an emergency hearing to dismiss SEIU’s filing. Instead, Jones set the first hearing on the bankruptcy for January 27, 2017.
The cleaning company claims that SEIU International should put up the bond for the local union. However, PJS never filed claims against the International and the local union is a separate entity with a separate board of directors.
SEIU President Elsa Caballero expressed confidence that her union will prevail in the end. “We will continue to fight for working families until all work is valued, all workers have a voice and access to opportunity, and all communities across Texas can thrive,” she said.
The legal fight will go on. But this particular battle must be seen as part of the overall attack on working people and organized labor in Texas. In a repeat from last session, Lt. Gov. Patrick’s Senate is expected to move legislation which would ban public entities from deducting union dues from public employees.
Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston has pre-filed HB 510 which prohibits the deductions while exempting police, fire and emergency workers from the ban. GOP leaders have reserved a bill number – Senate Bill 13 – for a companion bill in the Senate. (In case you’re new to the Texas Legislature, lower bill numbers are reserved for the Lieutenant Governor’s legislative priorities.)
There’s almost something feudal in the fierce effort to suppress the power of working people in Texas. Young people can get poor-paying jobs in the fast food industry, but heaven forbid they should try to organize for better pay, benefits and workplace conditions. Sen. Jane Nelson has filed SB 75 which would require workers under 18 to get parental consent before they can join a union. This bill is not aimed at helping working teens. If it was, there’d be a hike in the minimum wage. No, this bill is just a bureaucratic paperwork requirement aimed at hampering unions’ ability to organize and represent Texas workers. It’s like Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake,” except Texas kids can’t even afford cake on what their Scrooge-like employers pay them.
Last but not least, Brent Southwell is a major donor to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Texans for Lawsuit Reform. He was also one of the top ten backers of Accountability First, the political action committee that tried (unsuccessfully) to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus in 2014. Longtime BOR readers will find this no surprise, but for those newer to Texas politics, this is how things roll in the Texas Legislature. In other words, these bills are yet another example of wealthy donors coming before the working people of Texas and our right wing elected officials not giving a damn.
This is the same political party that claims they won the presidential election because of their commitment to working people. Let that sink in. But be careful not to say anything critical about our loving corporate overlords while you’re doing it.
Editor’s Note: The post has been updated with the following correction: SEIU Texas has 18,000 members, not 15,000 as originally reported.