Texas Republican Bundles Bills to Protect Kids from Sex Offenders and Labor Unions

Representatives from the United Steel Workers Union (USW) march around the Shell Corporation headquarters in Houston on Feb. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Conroe Courier, Kirk Sides)

State Sen. Jane Nelson began the 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature with a clear goal: protect children from rapists and labor unions.

As a result, she might have wound up creating proposals that would clear Texas neighborhoods of sex offenders and homes of abusive parents, and a model piece of legislation the GOP could use to slow labor union recruiters across America.

The Republican introduced a packet of legislation at the beginning of this year that included giving local governments the right to expand neighborhood sex offender boundaries.

“We need to keep children safe in every city,” Nelson said. “This bill will give general-law municipalities the same autonomy that is currently granted to home-rule cities to protect their children from sex offenders.”

Another bill Nelson sponsored gives municipal officials the right to terminate parental rights and ensure children aren’t left in a home where a parent has been convicted of rape.

“I was horrified to learn of my constituent’s ordeal,” Nelson said. “No parent should be forced to co-parent with their rapist, and this bill will provide stronger protections for victims of domestic assault.”

But here’s the proposal that’s ringing alarm bells at Democratic headquarters and labor union halls across the Lone Star State: Nelson offered legislation to make sure no kid joins a labor union without the consent of their parents.

“This bill protects parental rights by requiring consent before a minor may join a union, and it protects minors from entering into a contract that they may not fully understand.”

Makes sense to Nelson, who said her motivation was a conversation with William Schlabach, a constituent whose daughter joined a labor union without fully understanding the agreement she had signed.

During a Senate committee hearing on SB 75, Schlabach said his daughter was told she had to sign a union form if she was going to get a summer job at the grocery store chain Kroger.

“Until that night, I did not know Kroger employed unionized workers,” he told the committee.

Texas is a right-to-work state, which means nobody has to join a union to get a job. It is up to employees whether they join a union. Texas doesn’t have any closed shops. Union membership is not a condition of employment.

The union returned his daughter’s dues after Schlabach filed a complaint. But as far as Nelson was concerned, the damage was already done.

“This bill is a parental consent bill,” Nelson, a former teacher, said during a committee hearing.

SB 75 has angered labor union leaders and Democrats.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa contended Nelson’s proposal was nothing but an “attack on working Texans and the labor unions that protect their rights.”

“This is downright wrong. Republicans say that minors can have the freedom to work in Texas, but not the freedom to speak up together, join a union, and fight for a better workplace. Instead, they’re met with burdensome parental consent paperwork and bureaucratic nonsense,” Hinojosa said in a statement.

“Texas Democrats know that all Texans deserve a fair shot to get ahead, especially working minors,” he added. “We’ll do everything in our power to stop SB 75.”

One of those Democrats is Sen. John Whitmire. The Texas Tribune reported he was the only senator who spoke against Nelson’s bill during Senate debate April 10.

“You’re increasing the power of government,” Whitmire said. “Should I be talking to the Liberty Caucus?”

Anthony Elmo, the political director of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, did his best to stop SB 75 before it went to the Senate floor for a vote.

He testified before a Senate committee that the proposal “unfairly limits freedom and opportunity.” Elmo also said existing law is enough to protect teenagers who are faced with the decision of whether to join a labor union.

“Young people over the age of 16 in Texas can secure employment, sign employee applications, start insurance payroll deductions, approve background checks, and agree to drug testing policies all without parental consent,” Elmo said. “If labor unions are required to gain parental consent, why not every employer as well?”

“Why are we standing against a young person deciding to be a part of a civic organization and making this out to be some bad thing?” Elmo told the Texas Tribune.

They might have unleashed fiery phrases and emotional rhetoric, but Elmo and Hinojosa are going to have to do better than that if they want to block SB 75.

The legislation has been approved by the Texas Senate. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House Economic & Small Business Committee.

Labor activists are in a tough spot in this debate, according to Moshe Marvit, an attorney who wrote a book in which he argued labor organization should be a civil right.

If union leaders ignore the legislation, it will glide to approval, Marvit wrote in an In These Times magazine op-ed. But he is worried that if labor makes a big deal out of the fight against SB 75, it would only serve to publicize the legislation. And who knows where that could lead.

“If (labor) does fight it, then it may serve to publicize the bill and place itself in the loaded position of having to argue publicly that unions pose no harm to children,” he said.

Marvit also wrote that he’s afraid SB 75 could be the checkmate move Republicans have been looking for.

“Conservatives have long tried, with some success, to portray unions as exploitative enterprises,” Marvit wrote. “This proposed parental consent bill is of a similar vein – treating unions as something that harms or exploits workers, rather than as the representative of workers that they are.”