Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Workers Defense Project

Getting ready for the first SB4 hearing

All eyes are going to be on this next week.

On Monday, June 26, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia will hear the City of San Antonio’s request for a preliminary injunction to block Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary cities” law, from taking effect on Sept. 1.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) is representing the City in the lawsuit, along with the following nonprofit organizations: The Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, the Workers Defense Project, and La Unión Del Pueblo Entero. The hearing, which is open to the public, will take place at 9:30 a.m. at the Federal Courthouse at 655 E. César E. Chavez Blvd.

“Judge Garcia consolidated three separate lawsuits into one,” MALDEF Vice President of Litigation Nina Perales told the Rivard Report Friday. “The City of Austin is now a part of our case, [along with] El Paso County, Texas Organizing Project, the City of El Cenizo in Webb County, and Maverick County,”

[…]

On Friday, the State of Texas dropped MALDEF from a pre-emptive lawsuit asking a federal court to declare the “sanctuary cities” law constitutional.

“We wrote them a letter and said that if they didn’t drop us we were going to ask the judge to fine Texas for bringing a frivolous lawsuit against MALDEF,” Perales said. “We’re the lawyers – you don’t sue somebody else’s lawyers. MALDEF has five cases against the State of Texas right now, so it’s not just about SB 4. They were draining our resources in other cases, including school finance and redistricting.”

The pre-emptive lawsuit was filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton on May 8 before any legal action was taken against Senate Bill 4. It still includes the following defendants: Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, all of Austin’s City Council members, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, and Austin Interim City Manager Elaine Hart. El Paso County, El Cenizo, Texas Organizing Project, and LULAC have since been added to the list.

“Today, after MALDEF made very clear its intention to pursue all available remedies against the state of Texas for filing a completely frivolous lawsuit against a civil rights law firm, the state relented and filed a voluntary dismissal of all of its claims against MALDEF,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, in a statement. “This now permits MALDEF to devote its energies to the appropriate forum for resolving the many constitutional questions surrounding SB 4 – federal court in San Antonio.

“Today’s dismissal represents only a partial cure of Governor Abbott’s and Attorney General Paxton’s apparent problem with premature litigation. A more complete cure involves dismissing the entire preemptive lawsuit they filed in Austin, which is illegitimate against the remaining defendants, just as it was against MALDEF.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I’m sure there will be national coverage of this, which will remind everyone that we’re not just about bathroom bills here in Texas. Houston City Council may have voted to join the fight by this time, though I’d expect it to get tagged for a week. Mark this one on your calendar, next Monday is going to be a big deal. The Observer, which notes that there will be a hearing in Austin on the 29th for “all pending matters” pertaining to his pre-emptive lawsuit, has more.

San Antonio files “sanctuary cities” lawsuit

Here they go.

The cities of San Antonio and Austin announced on Thursday they have joined the fight to stop the state’s new immigration enforcement law, Senate Bill 4, in federal court.

[…]

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the suit Thursday on behalf of San Antonio City Councilman Rey Saldaña and a trio of nonprofit groups: La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, the Worker’s Defense Project and the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education.

The city of Austin’s city attorney will file a motion to intervene and join the plaintiffs Friday but will use its own attorneys and introduce certain Austin-specific claims, a spokesperson for Austin City Councilman Greg Casar said.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are the named defendants in the litigation.

During a press call late Thursday afternoon, Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF’s president and general counsel, said the lawsuit contains “arguments against each and every provision in SB4.” Specifically, the lawsuit alleges the bill, if enacted, would violate the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“All of those multiple constitutional claims basically relate to the illegality of empowering each and every police officer, sheriff’s deputy, booking agent and other law enforcement figures in the state of Texas to decide on their own, without any guidance or restriction from their duly elected superiors and appointed police chiefs … whether and how to enforce federal immigration law.”

CM Saldaña had been pushing for this since SB4 was signed, and it was reported earlier in the week that the suit would be filed on Thursday/ Here’s more on Austin’s role in this.

Austin plans to file a motion to intervene, bringing “Austin-specific issues to the table,” City Council Member Greg Casar said on a conference call.

“Soon after Gov. Abbott signed this disgraceful law, community groups announced a summer of resistance against SB 4, calling on elected officials to file challenges against the law in court,” Casar said, refering to Senate Bill 4. “City leaders have responded swiftly. Upon filing suit against the State of Texas tomorrow morning, El Paso, El Cenizo, San Antonio and Austin all will have responded to the community’s call.”

The lawsuit alleges SB 4 violates the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. It names the State of Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton as defendants.

As the story notes, Austin City Council had previously voted to pursue litigation, so this is the culmination of that vote. This lawsuit joins with the other lawsuits already in progress. MALDEF attorney Saenz is quoted in the Trib story saying that the Austin/San Antonio suits will likely be combined with the El Cenizo/Maverick County one at some point, but until then and before the September 1 implementation date there’s plenty of time for motions and discovery.

San Antonio’s decision to file suit was a bit contentious as Mayor Ivy Taylor did not want to get involved, at least at this time. That stance has become an issue in the Mayoral runoff.

Taylor’s move gives her an 11th-hour wedge issue in her mayoral runoff campaign. Her challenger, Councilman Ron Nirenberg, supports the lawsuit and Taylor is banking on the idea that North Side conservatives will remember that when they go to the polls.

Nirenberg said in a Thursday statement that he hopes the lawsuit “will bring a fast and final resolution on the constitutionality of the law so our local law enforcement can move forward with the job of protecting the people of San Antonio.”

Taylor was joined in her anti-lawsuit stance by North Side council members Joe Krier and Mike Gallagher. Like Taylor, Gallagher suggested that the city should work in coordination with the state’s other major cities before committing to litigation. Krier said the council should have voted in an open session, with full transparency and the chance for public discussion.

I agree with that point. That’s how Austin handled it, with a May 18 council vote to file suit over SB 4. By definition, City Council makes policy and deciding to participate in this lawsuit is a major policy move. In the words of former New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards, “Put your name on it.”

Saldaña agrees with the calls for transparency, but said San Antonio was running out of time because Austin and other cities are looking to S.A. to decide how they should proceed against SB 4, which goes into effect on September 1.

“The question that I posed to the mayor and the manager (Sheryl Sculley) and our city attorney was, ‘What is the best way to move quickly?’ And they said, ‘Let’s first discuss this in executive session and see what folks have an appetite for.’ But it kept getting stalled and several weeks passed from the time I originally proposed this,” Saldaña said.

“The people who are most in favor of getting it up for a (public) vote are just trying to delay the action that we’re taking. And Councilman Krier was one of them.”

Saldaña pointed out that Krier had no objections in 2014 when the council made an executive-session decision to file lawsuits against the police and fire unions over the city’s collective-bargaining agreements.

Here’s a list of statements by the Mayor and Council members following the vote to file suit. The runoff concludes June 10, so we ought to have some feedback on the political effect shortly. In the meantime, all eyes remain on Houston and Mayor Turner. ThinkProgress and the Current have more.

TOP releases report on inefficiency of development tax subsidies

From the inbox:

[Thursday], the Texas Organizing Project and the Workers Defense Project released a report on the ineffectiveness of tax subsidies in cities across Texas, and proposed ways to increase requirements for such deals in Houston to offer benefits in the form of good paying jobs with community investment for Houstonians.

The report, compiled by the Workers Defense Project, looked at corporate tax subsidies throughout the state, including Houston, and found that Texas’ cities are giving away huge subsidies without enforceable community benefits agreements.

“Today, we are asking the hard, critical questions,” said Lola Garcia, a community leader with the Texas Organizing Project, “Economic development for whom? For out-of-state multi-billion dollar companies and wealthy developers? Or for neighborhoods and Houstonians in need?”

After analyzing Houston’s tax subsidy deals, contracts and compliance records, researchers found that Houston’s tax subsidy programs have failed to deliver on their promises of equitable development, specifically, they:

  • Failed to create good jobs that pay well;

  • Failed to incentivize affordable housing, and instead contributed to the gentrification of our neighborhoods; and

  • Failed to create a level playing field for small and local businesses to access these programs.

“It’s time to address the city’s long history of picking winners and losers through tax give-aways that fast-track gentrification and fail to provide any direct benefits to neighborhoods most in need of a lift,” said Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director for TOP. “The good news is that we have the opportunity to change this narrative, to redesign the programs, raise and clarify the city’s expectations and criteria for developers seeking multi-million dollar tax deals.

“We know Mayor Turner is committed to creating good jobs for Houstonians, and this research can help us set new standards on economic development projects.”

Get the full report here: The Failed Promise of the Texas Miracle: Corporate subsidies in the Lone Star state.

And here’s the executive summary:

Over the last year, researchers from the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas at Austin have undertaken a study of tax subsidies and other economic incentives utilized at the state and local level to spur economic development in Texas. Researchers sought to understand the role economic incentives play in the Texas economy by examining how these programs have fulfilled or failed to fulfill their promise of creating high-quality, high-paying jobs and increasing local tax revenue. While there are over a dozen kinds of giveaways to businesses in the form of tax breaks, loans and grants in Texas, our research team conducted a thorough case study of one of the least transparent local programs: Chapter 380 (city) and Chapter 381 (county) agreements, which provide grants, tax breaks, and low-cost loans to corporations. To understand the impact of these economic programs, our research team combed through thousands of pages of contracts and compliance records from three Texas cities and county governments: Austin & Travis County, Houston & Harris County, and Dallas & Dallas County.

Researchers also examined data from over a dozen local, state and federal agencies including city and county governments, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the State Auditor’s Office, among others. Additionally, researchers reviewed existing studies from numerous academic sources on the impact of economic incentives, as well as existing data on state incentive programs, including the state-level equivalent of Chapter 380/381 agreements: The Texas Enterprise Fund.

To provide context for the use and impact of Texas’ economic incentive programs, we have structured this report around the three pillars necessary to build a strong economy: good job creation, investment in education and training, and fair market competition. Researchers found that while the Lone Star State has made substantial investments to attract Fortune 500 companies to the state, it has failed to invest in Texas businesses and workers, and left many homeowners footing the bill for billions that have been doled out to big business. This study seeks to provide in-depth analysis to how these tax subsidy programs work, how they have failed or fulfilled their promise to Texans, and to provide robust solutions to ensure that our state builds a strong economy that puts Texas business, workers, and taxpayers first.

I’m not opposed to the idea of economic incentives. There does need to be a good, measurable return on the investment, there needs to be a way to enforce the agreements, and the benefits need to be distributed equitably among the population. There’s plenty of room to do all of these things better. The full report is here, and the Austin Chronicle, the Press, and KUHF have more.

It’s a great time to be a construction worker

For most people, anyway.

On a conference call earlier this month, the president of Houston-based developer Camden Property Trust described what it’s like building apartments in markets where construction is booming and skilled workers are in short supply.

“It’s a catfight to get subcontractors to fully staff at your jobs,” said D. Keith Oden. He added, “It’s hand-to-hand combat.”

The labor shortage has become so severe that the company recently started putting guards on job sites to keep its workers from being poached by competitors willing to pay more.

“We’ve had specific instances where people would come on site and try to round up workers,” Camden’s chief executive Ric Campo said in an interview. “During the World Cup, we actually put big screens on our sites to get people to stay.”

[…]

[Pat] Kiley, principal of Kiley Advisors said licensed trades are in high demand: “electrical, mechanical, plumbers, sheet metal workers, iron workers, operating engineers, certified crane operators. These are all crafts in short supply,” he said.

Labor unions are recruiting workers.

“You’re getting people moving here from out of state like they did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Kiley said. “The unions have brought in people.”

Ed Vargocko, business manager of the Iron Workers Local 84, said the amount of construction taking place in the Houston area is attracting workers from other parts of the country where development remains slow.

“A lot of them come from California and quite a few from Detroit,” he said.

In some cases, the shortage is evident in higher wages.

Between the first quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2014, the average weekly wage in the local construction industry rose 24.5 percent, Jankowski said, citing the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. That’s higher than the 19.9 percent boost in the overall average weekly wage here over the same period.

The wage and benefit package for millwrights will increase by 4 percent for each of the next few years, Donahou said.

“It’s a strong market out there,” he said. “Everybody’s going after the same people.”

Still, a segment of the construction worker population, mostly immigrants, is underpaid and facing other problems.

A report on the challenges facing the construction industry in Texas, released last year by the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas, found that the state’s construction industry is characterized “by dangerous working conditions, low wages, and legal violations that hurt working families and undercut honest businesses.”

The report cited a widespread practice of payroll fraud, where more than 40 percent of construction employees were misclassified as independent subcontractors.

In such cases, employers avoid paying payroll and unemployment taxes and workers are deprived of overtime and other employment benefits.

That gives an unfair cost advantage to companies that don’t abide by employment rules, said construction veteran Stan Marek, CEO of the Marek Family of Companies.

The report cited is here. It’s yet another reason why comprehensive immigration reform is so desperately needed, and another reason why I cannot fathom how business interests can say with a straight face that they support CIR while continuing to support the politicians that oppose it. But in a state where employers can legally lie to their employees, I suppose such duplicity isn’t that surprising. Anyway, it sure would be nice if this kind of leverage for workers made its way to other industries as well. After decades of stagnant wages, we could all use it.

The Texas Future Project

Very interesting.

High-powered Democrats from Texas and California have joined with national labor unions in an effort to mobilize out-of-state donors and raise millions of dollars to build a progressive majority in the Lone Star State that could change state policy and national elections.

The Texas Future Project – that also will seek to convince Texas Democrats to donate here – wants to direct funding to groups that it has identified as working to effect change, from Battleground Texas to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

The project has commitments for close to $1 million, said Houston lawyer Steve Mostyn. He and his wife, Amber, are top Democratic donors and part of a small core group of members of the project, which also includes a key California-based supporter of President Obama.

“The main thing … when we talk to people from out of state, or folks in this state about keeping your money here, is the fact that it’s possible – and that if the work is done, and the money is spent, that it’s probable, it’s actually probable -that you now become a battleground state in 2016 for the presidential race,” Steve Mostyn said. “And the long-term effect – once you get a voter to vote once, then twice, then they are pretty much to be there.”

Mostyn said the group would “like to raise as much as we can. If it’s not doing a few million a year, then it’s not really doing what it was designed to do.”

The effort is aimed at building the infrastructure to turn out underrepresented voters in Texas – particularly Latinos, African-Americans, single women and young voters – as state demographic changes give hope to Democrats long shut out of statewide office.

[…]

The Texas Future Project was started by the Mostyns – Susman and his wife, Ellen, who has now stepped back from political efforts because she was appointed by the Obama administration to head the U.S. government’s Art in Embassies program – and San Francisco-based donor activist Steve Phillips, who was founder and chairman of PowerPAC.org, which conducted the biggest independent expenditure effort in the country in the 2008 presidential primaries to support Barack Obama. Phillips also is founder and chairman of the progressive PAC&.

Also on the ground floor of the state project are labor unions concerned about Texas wages and standards. The AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union helped start it. The United Food and Commercial Workers joined more recently.

The project has identified groups in Texas that it considers to be “high-impact, high-performing, accountable programs that are building field infrastructure and engaging in leadership development for progressive change beyond any election cycle,” according to Mostyn’s email.

They include Annie’s List, Battleground Texas, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the Texas Organizing Project and the Workers Defense Project.

My interpretation of this is that it’s basically a clearinghouse for large donors to direct funds to various groups that do good work for progressive political causes, especially progressive electoral causes. The named beneficiaries are all certainly worth supporting. Their webpage is nothing more than a way to get on their mailing list at this time, so you won’t learn much there. (Note to Randall Munroe: I had to go to the second page of the Google search results for Texas Future Project to find that webpage.) I’m a little concerned that building this kind of structure might make it more difficult for new progressive organizations to get off the ground, but I don’t know for sure that will happen. Overall, this sounds pretty good to me. What do you think?