In cowboy myth and frontier legend, Texas is a land of rebel outsiders, eternally defiant of the East’s gray-suited Establishment. Yet the official symbols of the adoptive home of George W. Bush are traditional ones of authority and power. The Capitol building’s garish pink dome, larger than that of the Capitol building in Washington, hovers over the city of Austin, a sprawling college town of seedy frat bars and New Age commerce. On the Capitol flagpole, the Lone Star flies below the American flag, emblem of the few brief years when slaveholding Texas was its own republic. A giant bronze statue honors the Confederacy, whose people, we are told, seceded for the mighty principles of 1776 and fought the North, outnumbered, until exhausted. To the side is a mammoth stone tablet, emblazoned with the Ten Commandments. And down the center of the Capitol plaza runs a recently refurbished stone walk, each brand-new brick bearing the name of a different corporate citizen: Enron, Wal-Mart, Philip Morris.
Yet just a few blocks away from the Capitol building there is evidence of another native Texas politics. In a small, one-story storefront, on a scraggly, tree-lined stretch of road, across the street from a temp agency, there hangs a purple-and-yellow sign, calling out to passersby: Organizing for Justice: Sign Here! This is the central office of the Texas State Employees Union, a statewide local of the Communications Workers of America. Opening the screen door to the office, one sees few posters on the whitewashed walls: Instead, they are covered with lists bearing the names of thousands of members across the state. High on one wall, almost in the corner, is a poem, stitched in needlepoint: “You can break my union heart, you may lock up my union body, you might dampen my union spirit, but you’ll never control my union mind.”
TSEU has been organizing public workers in Texas since 1980. It is a true industrial union, organizing most state workers without respect to department or occupation. For the past quarter-century it has been one of the few organizations in Texas to try to imagine, let alone to build, an alternative to the corporate frontier. There is no state income tax in Texas, and in fact, the legislature is constitutionally prohibited from passing one. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children were thrown off health insurance (Texas already led the country in the number of uninsured children) this past year to balance a $10 billion budget deficit, while millions of dollars were cut from school funding. State Representative Debbie Riddle of Houston summarized the political logic of such decisions in the El Paso Times this past spring: “Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.” In that spirit, the state legislature passed a bill this past May that will result in the privatization of eligibility determination for TANF (the program that replaced welfare), food stamps and Medicaid–fundamentally transforming the way social services are delivered in Texas. Mike Gross, who once worked for the Texas Youth Commission and is now organizing coordinator of TSEU, says, “We are on the frontlines of the battle to protect the social safety net.”
In some ways, the conservative attack on the union and the public sector in Texas today is a microcosm of the assault in the country as a whole. While business organizations and the corporations that stand to benefit lobby successfully for privatization and budget cuts, tens of thousands of state workers lose health insurance, and the social programs that make life bearable for the desperately poor are downsized.
But more is at stake than particular programs and specific benefits. The very existence of the public sector–controlled by people who are democratically accountable, run by workers who aren’t in thrall to the Dow Jones–hangs in the balance. The real question in Texas, and in the country as a whole, is whether we want to fight social inequality through the collective power of the state, using its capacities for redistribution to help remedy the sharp inequities of the workplace, or whether we should let corporations, churches and the Salvation Army deal with the problems of the poor. The choice is between charity, with its baseline assumption of unequal power and resources, and the expansive vision of social democracy. Against great political odds, TSEU is fighting not only for its members but also, implicitly, for us all.