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Last month, the highest-ranking member of the Texas Senate, Jane Nelson, pre-filed 11 bills to be considered in the legislative session that begins on January 10. A former teacher, Sen. Nelson has often focused her legislative attention on protecting children, and her new bills are no different — with five of the 11 bills dealing with children. However, nestled between SB 74, which affects children with high mental needs in the foster system, and SB 76, which allows municipalities to prohibit sex offenders from living near a “child safety zone,” is SB 75, which seeks to protect children from labor unions.
The bill would prohibit unions from accepting as a member anyone under 18 years of age unless the union first procures a signed consent form from the minor’s parent or guardian. According to a statement from Sen. Nelson’s office, the bill “protects parental rights by requiring consent before a minor may join a union, and it protects minors from entering into a contract they may not fully understand.” (Nelson’s staff initially responded to a request for an interview with the senator by asking questions about specifics, but then ignored attempts to schedule one.)
If the bill passes, children as young as 14 will be able to enter into an employment agreement with most employers without parental consent, but they will not be permitted to join a union without a signed parental consent.
The purpose of such a bill is not immediately clear. There appears to be no problem for which this bill is a solution. Texas has long been a right-to-work state, which means that any worker who is represented by a union can choose to pay no dues. It is also not clear how many unions even have minors as members in Texas.
Still, the proposed bill may be both symbolically and practically important, and could represent a new front in state-level attacks on unions. Symbolically, the bill positions unions as something that children need to be protected from. It hardly seems coincidental that the bill “protecting” children from unions is in the same packet as bills protecting children from sex offenders or a parent who sexually assaults the other parent. The bill treats unions not as organizations that represent and work on behalf of workers, but as something that preys on innocent children.
Practically, the bill may also have a significant effect. The number of workers between the ages of 16 and 24 that are represented by a union has increased steadily each year since 2013. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not measure union membership for the subgroup of those between 16 and 18 years old). Furthermore, in the past few years, some of the major labor campaigns — from Fight for 15 to a push for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to treat franchisors and franchisees as joint employers — have involved industries where younger workers represent a significant percentage of the workforce. Though workers at most fast food chains may still be far off from joining a union, a proliferation of bills such as the one being pushed in Texas would provide yet another roadblock in organizing.
Unfortunately, labor may be in a bind in terms of how best to respond to this bill. If it does not fight it, then the bill will likely become law in Texas and serve its onerous purposes. It may then spread to other states and become one more general state-level hurdle that labor has to contend with. However, if it 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.
The best approach may be to push a poison pill amendment that would either silently kill the bill, or, if passed, make the bill, on balance, a net positive. Such an amendment should similarly seek to protect young workers in the workplace, but from employers’ unscrupulous practices. It could take any number of forms, such as a just-cause provision for all workers under 24 years of age in order to protect young workers who may feel less confident in asserting their rights for fear of losing their jobs. A bill with such an amendment would have little chance of passing in Texas, but it would reframe the debate without publicizing the original bill’s faulty premise.
Conservatives have long tried, with some success, to portray unions as exploitative enterprises. Right-to-work laws position unions as organizations that stand as a barrier to work, while unfairly assessing dues. 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.
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Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.