After decades of union decline, the labor movement is seeing an increase in union membership. Workers across the board are using their voices to rebalance power at work. The recent success with retail and service workers has made headlines, and the interest in these sectors continues to grow. But to keep this movement trending upward, we as union activists must adapt to the ever-changing workforce – and to do that, there has to be change.
The Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation is doing just that in Houston. Several times a year a committee of public and private sector union activists meets to discuss new ways to organize in today’s climate. Only four percent of workers in the Houston area unionized, and right-to-work laws make it even more challenging.
The idea is for unions to work together and grow the labor movement. Their goals are to gain members internally and in new workplaces, train more members and staff to be better organizers, and use digital tools effectively to support organizing across the board. Sharing how they currently organize with one another has been especially helpful in laying a strong foundation to build on.
Hany Khalil, Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation Executive Director, believes the timing is perfect.
“Public opinion has gotten solidly behind unions,” said Khalil. “Workers are starting to realize that unions are for all of us. They’re not just for factory workers or airline workers. We have to figure out new ways to organize larger workplaces quickly while we can.”
Collaborating, maximizing resources, and putting these ideas into motion are key. The committee is planning a joint house call blitz where members from multiple unions will go door-knocking at the homes of people who are in other workplaces and ask them to join another union.
“It’s going to be powerful when a teacher is at the door of an AFSCME or Machinists member and they are saying, I don’t work in your workplace but let me tell you why I think it’s important that you join the union, and what it can do for your life,” said Khalil.
Hector Herrera, a 23-year IAM member of Local Lodge 15, is honored to sit on this committee. He’s always been thankful for his union contract – but today he values it even more.
“Now that I’m actually a grandfather, it is nice to be off my weekends,” said Herrera. “My grandsons come over almost every other weekend. My union contract allows me time off on the weekends for my family, and gives me work-life balance.”
Unions are as relevant today as in 1971 when Marlin Phillips started working as a diesel mechanic for the railroad. He remembers the day he signed up. Phillips joined IAM District Lodge 19. He was the first in his family to join a union but not the last. Shortly after, Phillips got his brother a job working at the railroad. This was a big deal during the 1970s, especially if you were African American.
“I always wanted to belong to a union,” said Phillips. “When I got my first job someone said they have a union over there; I said, what? I couldn’t wait to finish out my 60-day probation period and when I did, I went looking for the union rep. I told him to sign me up. You have to belong to the union to work on the railroad and at that time, for Blacks, that’s the only thing we had to represent us was the union. One thing that the union does, the union breaks down the color barrier that exists. It’s a blessing to have a union.”
Phillips had 31 good years working at the railroad and retired in 2004. Today, he is active at his church and in union activities – and proudly carries his union card.
By the end of 2023, the committee hopes to have added 10,000 new union members to the Houston region. The number may seem aggressive but as the saying goes, shoot for the stars, aim for the moon.