First Texas Meeting Highlights AFL-CIO's Increased Focus On South

Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America; Elizabeth Bunn, director of AFL-CIO organizing department; Tefere Gebre, AFL-CIO executive vice president (from left) address the media during the executive council meeting at the Hilton of the Americas in downtown Houston.
Houston is hosting the first AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Texas this week. The labor union association aims to expand its reach to more workers in southern states like Texas.

Labor unions don't have it easy in Texas. It's a right-to-work state, which means workers can't be required to join a union. Labor union membership in Texas is about 5 percent, less than half the national average.

The AFL-CIO would like to change that. Tefere Gebre is the executive vice president of the union federation.

"It's a big state with a lot of low-wage workers (who) live here, a lot of Latino workers live here. And we're going to be working hand in hand with our brothers and sisters in Texas, with our state federation here and with our labor councils here to organize workers here."

The union movement is just coming off a defeat in Tennessee, where Volkswagen workers voted not to join United Auto Workers there. That's one of the issues AFL-CIO executives are discussing at the meeting at the downtown Hilton. One of them is Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.

"That should be viewed as, I think, a turning point from our point of view in terms of the right wing in this country, not so much a turning point in terms of working people and how they behave."

Union officials blame Republican politicians, especially Tennessee's Sen. Bob Corker for trying to influence that vote.

It also shows that unions have much work to do in the South. That's another reason why the AFL-CIO executive council is meeting in Texas for the first time.

Gebre says in the five months that he's been in his current position with the AFL-CIO, he has concentrated on the South.

"As a labor movement, we have to focus on areas where the suffering happens the most, and it has been in the South. That's where children live in poverty at higher number than any other place in the country. That's where wages are depressed the most. So as a movement if we don't respond to this, I don't know what we are here for."

He says Houston is a good starting point for organizing labor in the South.

"Houston has one of the largest cab drivers organized into a union, so Houston is setting actually an example in how we move forward in the South and in Texas."

According to Harris County AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Shaw, there are about 95 labor unions in Harris County.

Shaw says what also plays into the AFL-CIO holding its meeting here is the possibility of Texas becoming a majority Democratic state again in the near future.

Democrats have traditionally been more supportive of labor unions than the Republican Party.

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Florian Martin

Reporter/NewsLab Coordinator

Florian Martin is the KUHF NewsLab Coordinator. While guiding and overseeing interns, he works on his own stories and is always on call to cover breaking news and other media events...