Texas has made headlines in recent weeks, as the state legislature effectively banned abortions and passed some of the nation’s most far-reaching restrictions on voting. “In Texas, we have such a hostile state legislature and such a hostile set of state officials who have really targeted Black and brown communities,” Austin City Council member and former Workers Defense Project organizer Greg Casar explains. But despite the challenges, organizers and elected officials across the state have been working steadily to build governing power. In this roundtable, which has been edited and condensed, Ana Gonzalez, the Director of Better Builder and Policy for the Workers Defense Project; Krissy O'Brien, the Organizing Director of the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees; and Crystal Zermeno, the Director of Electoral Strategy for the Texas Organizing Project, talk with Casar about the work they’ve done to build governing power in Texas — what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what they’ve learned along the way.  


Greg Casar: What do you define as governing power, and how do you think about growing governing power in our cities?

Crystal Zermeno: What is critical is that we're really sharing the vision of where we need to be and carrying the load of that work together. And that the community is part of it every step of the way. For us in Texas, we face a participation problem because our government has been delivering for a very select few for a really long time. And we know that the barriers to civic engagement for our folks are many. One of those [hurdles] is that, when they engage, they don't see change. 

GC: When I was an organizer at Workers Defense, we thought we might have [governing power] when we got union wages attached as a requirement for the construction of this big downtown hotel, but then when the downtown hotel decided to break that law anyway, the mayor's proposal was, “Let's go back and change the law to lower wages rather than hold the hotel to following through on their promise.” So we clearly didn't have governing power at that moment. We had some advocacy power, a little bit of media power. And part of what came out of that was electoral campaigns. But the electoral stuff doesn't solve [this problem] in and of itself either. There've been plenty of times that we've all worked on an electoral campaign to get somebody elected, and then we still don't get what we want.

And so I think it'd be useful for us to think about what times it really didn't work and what times we saw it really working well. And one example of it working really well was the electoral strength that it took to get some number of new progressives onto the Austin City Council, but then actually pushing and holding people to co-write a paid sick time policy or a fair chance policy that got excitement from organizers in other Texas cities like San Antonio or Dallas so that we could actually help boost organizing in those other places too.

Krissy O'Brien: We depend heavily on who we're putting in office. We put a lot of political program work into making sure that our city and county electeds are going to work on policies that better the lives of workers. And we really did see that change after the 10/1 election. City workers received minimum wage increases for full-time employees and temporary employees. All of these policies like fair chance hiring, paid sick time, civil service, that all came from elected officials. Being able to run that program and make sure elected officials knew what was important to labor in Austin really flipped the switch.

We started organizing so-called temporary workers at the city. These folks have been on payroll for years and years and years, but they weren't able to take any paid sick time. They weren't on the city's minimum wage. We started with lifeguards in the Parks Department because they receive a certain certification pay. They have lots of training in CPR. They're on the job working to save lives. Then we moved to some of the more low-wage job areas and raised awareness around these folks who are putting in the same workloads as everybody else but not getting the same benefits or pay. We created a coalition with Workers Defense Project, UNITE HERE, and other unions and labor groups to start with that minimum wage for temps at the city but then moving that out into the private sector. 

GC: And I think it's useful for folks to know that you and I were talking every day through that. I could be somebody who'd be like, let's make sure the media room is open, and we'll make sure that we're picking the press day that is a slower press day so that this can really catch citywide attention to be able to move things forward. And we were including folks making that low wage in that process to build their leadership. 

Ana Gonzalez: The organizing, the advocacy, and the electoral work, they're all one piece. It's not just about electing one person; it's to make sure that we continue to hold people accountable. Since the beginning of Workers Defense, we were able to work closely with our labor allies. And I think that that is something that is very unique to Texas. I've seen other places in the country [where worker] centers and community organizations are at odds with our labor familia. But I think that this is something that makes us stronger in Texas — we have a labor movement that fights for union workers, non-union workers, undocumented, documented workers.

CZ In Texas, we're so stretched; we're always fighting against a million things and we miss so many opportunities. Where we have folks in government who are telling their staff — look, this is our set of priorities. And [having staff] look at what's coming up on the council agenda, look at what's coming up on the commissioner's court, and give us a heads up…because we're not always able to monitor it. We don't always have the capacity to look at the agenda.

GC: Really often, the elected officials themselves don't have the staff to monitor everything either. And I think that brings up a question of what the barriers are to making [co-governance] work better. What do you think needs to change to get us to a place where we have more governing power that creates authentic relationships between local organizing and local elected officials to help the movement achieve its goals?

CZ: One thing that we have to get better at is identifying opportunities for real systems change, things that are really building formal systems that withstand changing and evolving staff or evolving elected officials. It's harder in Texas where there's all kinds of preemption, but I do think that there are real opportunities in our local governments to start to create those [systems] and institutionalize them.

GC: When we have some governing power, how can we make it more long lasting, regardless of who's in office? And then, how are we selecting campaigns that not only get community in the room but build up leadership for long-term change?

AG: The first example that comes to mind is our rest rate campaign. People have lost their lives because they don't get a rest rate — they're working in Texas weather for 12 hours a day without stopping, without being able to be in the shade and drink water. It was impossible for elected officials to say no to this lifesaving, basic policy, and it came from our members. Throughout the process, our members were in it. And from there, it just really builds on their ability to bring other folks in our community into our movement. 

CZ: Sometimes where we struggle is getting them into that next level of leadership and fully supporting them. One of the things that we have created is the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI), which trains folks on the skills that they would need [to work in government]. We still struggle, I think, to get enough of our real community leaders through that and then to get them placed. But we do have some examples. One woman from Houston got involved post Harvey; her home was flooded. And she has been a fighter for how [recovery] money gets equitably distributed and invested in our communities. She went through our BCLI program and is now on the San Antonio Regional Flood Planning Group. 

KO: It really helps when inspiring people run for office, when your new members, activists, organizers, everyday people run. And maybe not even win, maybe come close, but that really inspires people to be involved. They're more motivated to be engaged when they see there's a pathway for everyday folks to run for office. And I think Austin has done that well. We have a lot of great candidates that step up and run. 

In my ten-plus years here, I've never seen so many people calling into City Hall to testify on the budget [as did during the last budget cycle]. And I think it's a combination of knowing that we have elected leaders who will respond to that, but also that we have organizing groups in town that prioritize that for our communities. So I think that is a huge plus for Austin.

GC: Thousands and thousands of people called in, and we worked together to transfer a lot of money from the police department to better uses in the community. Then [we worked] together across organizations, community groups, and labor to defend those members who were up for reelection who were being attacked primarily on those votes. Showing that we can push to get folks elected, then work to shape their agendas, and then actually show up during the backlash has been an important part of the success here.

CZ: We need to do better on political education. A lot of our labor allies do a tremendous job grounding their leaders and membership in, what is government? And what should it be doing for us and what are those opportunities? Even as we get folks elected, if there was a day where we just did a training with everybody in the city to really understand, what is this office? What can we do together? I think that would be really helpful. And then also pushing back in a more digestible format what is happening in meetings or in this particular policy because it is hard to follow. We’ve got to break it down and make things way more accessible to everyone.

GC: And on top of all of that, we know we can only make change in Texas at scale if we're doing multi-city work. Can you talk a little bit about how we've done work across cities in Texas?

CZ: There's been a real evolution just in the last 10 years of our organizations getting bigger and stronger. I think the reason we've been able to do that is because we really just have each other's back. It is a big state, and we need each other's expertise. Sometimes we are in different places on certain issues or how we want to approach things on strategy. But for the most part, we have a real community in our progressive movement — from joint fundraising to "I'll raise money and give it to you" to "you take that geography and I'll take this one." We've got real trust because we have a real vision of where we need to be together.

GC: I think we all have to think about how elected officials can get formed by the fights and can get united by them. And so with Senate Bill Four, we had all of these council members in different cities in Texas who said they were opposed to the state law that was basically this show-me-your-papers racist anti-immigrants bill. And there was an important moment when that bill passed where community organizations could ask those local elected officials to live up to what they were saying and come to the Capitol and commit to suing the state to push back against Senate Bill Four.

And that's really what formed our Local Progress Texas chapter. We had a press conference that included immigrants’ rights and workers’ rights organizations from all over the state and council members and county commissioners from all over the state announcing that we wanted every city and county that could to sue. It was those same elected officials that I was tasked with sometimes calling when we were trying to move paid sick time through multiple cities. But it wasn't just me calling them based on who I thought I should call. There were community organizers in those cities saying, "Hey, actually, this person could use a little bit of advice or this person could use a little bit of backup or maybe you can give some help to this person because they're good, but they're trying to push their colleague." And so I think it's important for folks to be thinking about the opportunities where everybody can actually be in coalition so we can keep that coalition going for when we need it even more.


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