A recent town hall meeting at a community center in Alief, a booming suburb in Harris County lodged in between the Sam Houston Tollway and the Fort Bend County line, was filled with dozens of union members.
Members from local teachers unions and municipal unions were in attendance, as well as many people sporting purple t-shirts emblazoned with the logo of the Service Employees International Union.
In front was the guest of honor.
Or at least her photograph was.
On an easel was a portrait-sized, glossy color snapshot of state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman, whose district includes a chunk of Alief, is a sponsor of legislation that would stop state and local governments from collecting union dues from the paychecks of many public union employees.
Many in the audience waited in line to get their turn to speak into a microphone and give the photo a good chewing out. Town hall organizers said that Huffman was invited but declined to attend citing a scheduling conflict.
“What the senator wants to do is weaken my union,” a woman who identified herself as a member of the SEIU said to the photo. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. My question to the senator is: Why does she want to take dues deduction away from public employees?”
“Your absence here proves that you either don’t care about us as working people, or you’re afraid of us as working people,” declared a speaker who said he was an English teacher at the Fort Bend Independent School District.
Annie Spilman, the legislative director for the Texas NFIB — a lobbying group that is an advocate for small businesses — suggests that events like this one are part of a highly funded lobbying “distraction dance.”
“I think people are being distracted from the truth,” Spilman told The Texas Monitor during a recent interview in Austin. “I think that the well-paid lobbyists and lawyers for the unions who are funded by the money our government is raising for them through government employee paychecks are doing a really good job at saying, ‘Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain’ and they’re doing this distraction dance.”
Spilman said this legislation should cause little consternation.
“Why does anyone feel entitled to say we have the right to have the government collect our membership dues for us? That’s a private program and we know that it funds your advocacy efforts, everything,” she said. “These labor unions that are literally getting millions and millions of dollars from our state and city employees…it’s funding their political advocacy campaigns.”
Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, emceed the town hall.
“Texas is one of the few states where union membership is on the rise,” Malfaro said to The Texas Monitor after the event. “What we saw here today is the start of a domino effect that’s going to continue to put pressure on Senator Huffman to either start to moderate her positions or to face opposition in 2018 when she’s up for election.”
That’s bold talk. And a Huffman constituent might be forgiven for thinking that her legislation is, essentially, a fait accompli.
The Texas Legislature is solidly Republican, a group that is often identified as a party less than pleased with the political activity of public sector unions, such as teacher and municipal unions.
Supporters of the bill say that the government should have no official role in collecting dues from public union paychecks, since taxpayer money is used to do so. This is a common view in many other states that have passed similar legislation, such as Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.
As an added sweetener, Huffman has exempted police, fire and ambulance crews — largely popular among voters — from being affected by her legislation.
Huffman said on the Senate floor that one reason for the carve-out was that fire and police unions seldom use their dues for political harassment — unlike the teachers’ unions, which is part of the AFL-CIO and other unions in connection with the SEIU.
“This bill exempts first responders because first responders’ unions and associations have not been known to use their state-collected dues to harass employers in Texas, while there are examples of other groups doing just that,” Huffman said. “While it is true that unions and associations cannot write political action committee checks out of their membership dues revenue, the dues can be used to pay for the administration of the PAC.”
Huffman cited one example of a group being formed by county and municipal unions associated with the AFL-CIO and backed by Texas trial lawyers to influence redistricting.
“This is a blatant example of lobbying,” she said.
Huffman did not return repeated requests for comment left with her Austin-based staff.
But the NFIB certainly hasn’t been quiet about the legislation.
- On the most recent Republican primary ballot, 83 percent of Texans voted to prohibit government from being the dues collector for unions and associations;
- In an NFIB member ballot poll, 93 percent of NFIB Texas members polled believe government should not be allowed to collect dues from public employee paychecks on behalf of a union; and
- Based on a statewide survey funded by Keep Texas Working, 57 percent of union members who are registered to vote believe allowing government to withhold union dues presents a conflict of interest, and 67 percent of union members support legislation to end the practice.
The Senate Committee on State Affairs, chaired by Huffman, declared in its interim report to the Legislature. “Texans must do everything they can to hold union officials accountable under the same laws as other citizens and end all labor-relations policies that set up barriers to the efficient and effective provision of public services.”
In the addition, the report included an analysis from the state comptroller, who found that Texas government deducted more than $6 million from the checks of more than 45,000 state employees during fiscal year 2016. Using Texas American Federation of Teachers membership figures of roughly 65,000, another $7.2 million a year is automatically deducted from teacher checks for union dues.
Huffman’s legislation also has some powerful allies.
When Gov. Greg Abbott delivered his state of the state address on Jan. 31, he called on the Legislature to pass and deliver to his desk Huffman’s legislation.
“While we are cleaning up government,” Abbott told legislators, “we should end the practice of government deducting union dues from the paychecks of employees. Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to support the collection of union dues.”
And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made the bill — SB13 — one of his priorities.
Indeed, even before the session began Patrick issued a statement saying, “It is clearly not the role of government to collect union dues, and certainly not at taxpayer expense. This legislation places government in its appropriate neutral position and lets unions collect their own membership dues.”
While all the stars seemed to be aligned for Huffmans legislation, whether the bill can get to the governor’s desk is in question.
During the last legislative session in 2015, Huffman pushed a similar bill. It passed the Senate but died in the House.
Opponents of Huffman say that she is attempting to divide union allies by allowing for the state to continue collecting dues for members of police and fire unions. Teacher union chief Malfaro, for example, has called Huffman’s efforts “logical gymnastics” and Republican Sen. Craig Estes has said he was uncomfortable with the inconsistency of the state collecting dues for one set of unions and not another.
“A lot of Republicans believe in individual freedom and when you ask them, ‘Do you think that workers — a public employee — should be free to use the paycheck that they earn in the manner that they see fit?’ Most Republicans will say, ‘Yea, I’ve got no problem with that,” Malfaro said.
And while unions in Texas are not the largest political donors, they can still pack a solid financial punch. They dole out more campaign contributions to candidates running for state office than the beer and liquor industry, general contractors, or the healthcare industry, according to nonpartisan, nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics.
A study of union contributions over the past ten years to lawmakers currently serving in the House and Senate done by The Texas Monitor shows union and employee organizations have donated almost $6 million to legislators.
The political action committee for the Texas State Teachers Association is, by far, the largest single donor, having contributed $667,439 during that time. However, four of the top ten contributors are police and fire union PACs, who donated more than $1.4 million in that period.
In the House State Affairs Committee, where the House version of Huffman’s bill sits, public unions have made their biggest donations to a Republican, Charlie Geren, to the tune $115,229 and a Democrat, Jessica Farrar, totalling $70,850. Committee chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, has received $50,396.
In the Senate, political action committees have, not unexpectedly, donated more than $300,000 to the Dean of the Texas upper house, John Whitmire, D-Houston.
The powerful Whitmire is the longtime chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and an outspoken champion of police officers, firefighters and other emergency employees.
State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, a member of Whitmire’s Criminal Justice Committee, is the second leading recipient of union donations, with $174,671.
Interestingly, next on the list is Huffman herself, having received $101,250.
Huffman’s bill passed the Senate and is now awaiting debate in the House.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.