Texas Bill Would Require Workers Under 18 to Get Their Parents’ Consent to Join a Union

Moshe Z. Marvit

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. (David Ingram/ Flickr)

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.

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.

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