AUSTIN, Tex.—From the birth of so-called “right to work” laws in the 1940s to the recent state legislation pre-empting local paid-sick-leave ordinances, Texas has been tough turf for organized labor. Yet seven months into his first term as president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, Zeph Capo is optimistic.
“We’re beginning to finally gain critical mass in our urban areas,” he says, speaking to LaborPress in the union’s offices along Interstate 35 in South Austin. More and more people in the South, he adds, are waking up to see the value of union membership, “because even the small rural areas in Texas are having to deal with the consequences of the ridiculous overemphasis on accountability and the strangulation that has been put in place to create space for injecting the profit motive into the public-school system.”
The Texas AFT emerged in the early 1970s in Austin and Corpus Christi, with the Corpus Christi local the first to win “exclusive consultation” bargaining rights. It now has about 65,000 members and 37 locals, including the three in San Antonio, Austin, and the Austin suburb of Round Rock that it runs jointly with the smaller Texas State Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate. They compete with two nonunion organizations, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association and the Association of Texas Professional Educators, which also includes administrators.
Most of the AFT’s locals, says Capo, are “wall to wall,” representing anyone who is an employee of the school district, from teachers and librarians to secretaries and custodians. The union is strongest in the state’s five biggest cities: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso. More recently, it’s expanded into the suburbs, particularly in the Houston area. About one-third of its members are “associate members,” individuals from districts where the union doesn’t have a big enough presence to bargain.
Texas presents formidable geographic challenges to statewide organizing, with 1,140 districts spread over hundreds of miles, many in isolated rural areas. Still, the AFT has at least associate members in 890 of them.
“The fact that they are far behind the rest of the country in salary is still at the forefront in our members’ minds,” says Capo, who began teaching in Miami before moving to Houston in the late 1990s, where he taught high-school biology before going to work for the union full-time. “Several of the issues are outside of pay and compensation. A great deal of it is about having a voice at work, having a voice in the profession. The respect level is deeply important, or the lack of respect in many of our campuses. And in general, across the state, the lack of respect by the legislative body for the work that educators do has come to the forefront over the last few years.”
He would like to see the state government turn down the “vitriol.” “Public-school teachers are not the enemy. Public-school teachers are one of the best assets and resources that we have as a state. Public-school educators, particularly those in Texas, do really difficult work for far less than most of their counterparts elsewhere,” he says. “If you listen to teachers and school employees across the state of Texas, they’ll tell you, ‘We don’t need more testing. We don’t need Pearson to get bigger contracts with more test-prep booklets to help kids.’ What they need is someone who can help fill this kid’s cavities when they come to school and they’re hurting. They need someone who can help find shoes for the kids who come to school with holes in them. People who can help them work with the parents of kids so they can stay in their home and not move two to three times a year because they’re chasing the latest deal on apartment rent.”
Policies to deal with problems like that, he adds, would enable teachers to “actually be the teacher, and not the teacher, the social worker, the chef, the clothes cleaner, the retail provider, and everything else that they’re expected to do in the classroom.”
Despite the state’s “very conservative culture,” legislation to enact vouchers appears dormant. Capo credits rural voters and legislators who understand “that vouchers really do harm public schools, they do harm public education. They’ve been able to figure out that vouchers really do nothing but provide tax breaks to wealthy suburban Texans, and they do nothing for urban Texans, they do nothing for rural Texans, because frankly, there’s not anywhere to use them in most of rural Texas.”
Last year, the state enacted House Bill 3, which increased school funding and raised teachers’ minimum salaries by $5,500 to $9,000 a year—“the first raises that teachers have seen in a long time,” says Capo. One reason it passed, he says, was support from principals and superintendents, who have a common interest in strong education and have become less afraid of unions. Another, he believes, was that legislators sensed the pressure building up after the wave of “Red for Ed” teachers’ strikes in other states in 2018 and 2019.
“We hear much of that sentiment from our members,” Capo says. “We are certainly not taking actions like we’ve seen in Oklahoma and Arizona and West Virginia off the table.”
Texas is so big that “it just takes that much longer to reach critical mass,” he adds, but “I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t see segments of the state, if not the entire state, taking more direct action over the next few years.”
One provocation might be the state education agency’s attempt to take over Houston’s schools last November, intending to replace the district’s elected trustees with a state-appointed board on the grounds that one high school had failed to meet academic standards for more than four years. It has been stayed by a state court until a hearing scheduled for June. The Houston Federation of Teachers, the Texas AFT’s largest local, is challenging the takeover in federal court, arguing that it was retaliation for resistance to privatization and that it would disenfranchise the city’s largely black and Latino residents.
“If they put in a board of managers that does the abysmal job that most of the boards of managers have been doing across the state of Texas, you may see regional sparks that ignite some of the flames that are kind of rolling under the radar right now,” Capo says.
The Houston federation does not have exclusive bargaining rights, and only about half the district’s staff are members, but Capo contends a committed membership can compensate for that.
“It takes a lot of work to get people to realize politics are the reason they are at the bottom of the bucket when it comes to salaries in the United States, and why people are having to take out of their own pocket to provide basic materials and resources for the kids in their classroom,” he says. The Texas AFT has spent the last 20-odd years “ensuring that our members understand that membership dues are not just about workplace protection, job protection. It’s not about just shopping for the lowest insurance premium you can find. Membership dues are really about building power and having true impact on your profession.”
“People don’t believe that we can have strong, effective unions in the South, in places like Texas,” he continues. “We seem to be able to do more and be more effective in some of our areas, because it really, truly is about building power. So many collective-bargaining locals would never be able to wield the strength that Chicago teachers or others have done, if they haven’t done the work to deeply engage their members.”
“It’s about engaging your membership and then getting them out there on the lines, and them believing in what they’re doing,” Capo concludes. “[Just] because you don’t have the same structure that other people do doesn’t mean you can’t have a fully viable, functioning union and actually move the needle for working people.”