After five months of the Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) not recognizing their union, members of the Texas Environmental Workers Union unanimously agreed to a one-day strike, which took place on February 6, 2023. Working People producer Jules Taylor sat down with Brandon Marks and Chloe Torres for an in-person interview ahead of the strike to discuss the struggle Texas Environmental Workers Union members are facing in their workplace. Union members are requesting that listeners sign on their letter urging the TCE to recognize their union, and consider donating to their strike fund. The Texas Environmental Workers Union is proudly represented by the Communications Workers of America.
Additional links/info below
- Brandon Marks – Twitter, Facebook
- Chloe Torres – Facebook
- Updog – South Texas Emo/Ska Bandcamp, Twitter
- Texas Environmental Workers Union – Twitter, Website
- Communications Workers of America – Website
- Texas Campaign for the Environment
- DONATE TO THE TEXAS ENVIRONMENTAL WORKERS UNION STRIKE FUND
- Video for this episode
Permanent Links below
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- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”
- Updog – “Burned Out”
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Brandon Marks: Hey y’all. My name is Brandon Marks. I use he/him pronouns. The regional coordinator at the Texas Campaign for the Environment, right here living in Corpus Christi, Texas. We have been fighting for our union for about six months now.
Chloe Torres: Hi everyone. My name is Chloe Torres. I use they/she pronouns, and I am the fossil fuel exports organizer for the Coastal Bend region. Same as Brandon, our union started in a living room conversation, kind of as a joke, but not really. Here we are now fighting to be recognized.
Jules Taylor: All right. Well, Brandon and Chloe, thank you so much for sitting down, talking to me today and welcome, Working People listeners, to another episode of the podcast Working People, the podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network produced by Jules Taylor and hosted by the one and only Maximillian Alvarez.
As you can see or hear, Max is not with us today. It is your intrepid producer coming to you from Corpus Christi. Long story short, I moved to Texas, as some of y’all may know, I moved to Texas from New York back in May, and I’ve been getting around to some of the different clubs and music venues in the area, and I’ve taken up some photography in the last few months and really enjoying that. But I went to take photos of a band called Up Dog, which by the way, for listeners, I’m about to open my pearl snap shirt and show my Up Dog T-shirt. Wearing the T-shirt, man.
I went to the show last Saturday night, and it was just completely… How did I not know that A, there was a union being formed that wasn’t being recognized and was going on strike, and B, how did I not know that that band’s proceeds from their merch booth was going towards the union fund, towards the strike fund? Everyone I know that night came… Everyone left with a new T-shirt and photographs and stuff, but I realized I was like, I got to follow up with these folks to get an interview and talk about this on the podcast.
Because as you guys know, we’ve interviewed several different unions. We do this all the time. Max has been on road trips to Alabama to support the mine workers on strike down there. We’ve covered a lot of the strikes in the past of Frito-Lay and John Deere,, and all sorts of stuff, man. The way that we start out, though, is we start out by asking you about what life is like for you, where’d you grow up? Maybe Chloe, we’ll start with you. Are you a Corpus Christi native?
Chloe Torres: I am, born and raised. My great-grandparents on my maternal side came from Mexico to Corpus Christi, and my paternal grandparents dawdled in Brownsville and then eventually made their way up to Corpus Christi. But yeah, I’ve grown up here. And I think one of the things that I love to share with people about why I do organizing work, both paid and unpaid, is the fact that, growing up here, people really hated it. My peers really, really hated it. We just made an analysis without really realizing it, that there are no opportunities for us here outside of working in an oil and gas refinery or working at the military base, or you go to college and you get out. That’s the goal.
And so, going through high school, I had that same mindset of just get out as soon as you can. But then I started hearing about actual people in my community who are talking about these really big issues that you, as a kid, think about as just things that happen far away on a national scale, even people talking about immigration, talking about feminism, talking about labor rights. I knew that I couldn’t just walk away because everyone I love is here, and they deserve so much better than what is given to them, the choices that are given to them. And if there are people who are fighting to expand those choices, then I have an obligation to join them.
And so, that’s what I did. I got to the university here, started looking around different school clubs, but eventually found my way into this space called the Solidarity Network, and we started organizing around issues of police brutality, started working around specifically environmental justice in terms of water boils and bans. We had so many in the year 2016, and not just advisories, but full on bans. You can’t even shower with this, you can’t brush your teeth with this or you’re going to get sick. It was there that I started forming a real rigorous power analysis, because I have so many mentors here in what is seen as a conservative city and state because of our voting record, but there have always been Southern radicals here. And I’m so lucky that I ended up with them, because they’ve really, then, in the past, propelled me to move forward, but now are supporting us in our efforts to be unionized. So yeah, I have them to thank.
Brandon Marks: All right. I guess it’s my turn. It’s interesting, I have a similar story to Chloe that’s almost a corollary, where my great-grandpa also was the one who migrated here to this area in the Coastal Bends. My family’s been here for generations. But then my dad was the generation that left, and he left for college and didn’t come back until he was in his adulthood. I was born in Dallas and grew up in South Florida, where my mom is from.
I moved here about two years ago to join the organization I work for now, the Texas Campaign for the Environment. It was an incredible opportunity to do this important environmental justice organizing work in the middle of oil and gas country. It also happened to be where my dad, my grandma, and all of the rest of my family lived. I’ve been so grateful to be welcomed into the community here, to be able to spend time with my family. It’s the first time that, as an adult, I’m actually living near family. And being able to be with Chloe and others who’ve been doing this fight for a lot longer than I have, for fighting for justice here in Corpus Christi, and South Texas more broadly. I’m just so happy to be a part.
Jules Taylor: Did y’all meet in the Solidarity Network?
Chloe Torres: We actually met at the Corpus Christi DSA event.
Jules Taylor: Oh, wow. Cool.
Chloe Torres: It was at actually a benefit show that we had for our mutual aid program –
Jules Taylor: Sweet.
Chloe Torres: …That we started at the beginning of the pandemic, and Brandon just got there. I was working the table, and he was just like, I just came down from Chicago, thought I’d come check you guys out. I was like, oh, that’s crazy.
Jules Taylor: Wow.
Chloe Torres: Eventually he told me about TCE and then saw that the fossil fuel exports organizer position was open. After some encouragement, again, from those mentors that I mentioned earlier, I applied.
Jules Taylor: That’s super cool. Man, I grew up an hour and a half south of here in the Rio Grande Valley. To me, Corpus was like an island outside of a black hole in a way, because it was like the Valley… South Texas in general, even if you’re not Latino, there’s a very tight-knit family cultural aspect to being Latino. And so, your family, it’s very difficult to move away from them. I grew up in the Valley, and like yourself, had a lot of peers that just couldn’t wait to get out. I was one of those that was like, I’m getting out. I’m going, I’m leaving.
My first little skip out of the Valley was to Corpus, but Corpus was still not quite enough to soothe the hunger of a young and ambitious person of that mindset. So I left, and I’ve been delighted to return to find that… I didn’t know what I was going to come back to, because when I was in New York, I was part of a music scene there, which to my knowledge, I mean, when I was here, there wasn’t a brewery scene you’d go play music at. Maybe the surf club was here, but there weren’t other venues like House of Rock or other common places. This is a terrain where, as a songwriter, if you’re performing and that’s how you make your living, it is possible to work year-round here because of the climate and the number of venues, and the number of venues available in a three-hour radius. So that I’ve returned and found that there was a thriving singer-songwriter scene was something that was wonderful.
But in such a heavily conservative refinery town, I did not imagine that I’d find a thriving DSA club down here as well. I did not expect to find a whole lot of environmental activism, and actions on behalf of Indigenous people as well. All of these various communities, music or activism, et cetera, it’s super exciting to get here and find this stuff. Because I feel like, I think there was a Che Guevara quote or something that he said, I envy y’all as you live in the heart of empire, you can strike at the heart of it.
Like you, when you were speaking, Chloe, about having a moral obligation to the people that you love, that you grew up with, that are deserving of these opportunities, and how you just couldn’t leave, I felt like a latent sense of that as I was away for a long time. I was like, wait a second, what about my family? What about my people? What about the people that I…
Coming back, it’s like, okay, so now maybe this is where the real battle starts. Maybe it’s being in Texas and fighting for trans rights, environmental justice, like you all. For me, I knew that when I was weighing the decision whether to move back to Texas, the activism or the issues that were nearest and dearest to my heart were women’s bodily autonomy, trans rights, and some environmental justice as well. To get here and see all of this taking shape, to see you all going on a one-day strike, to see that there’s a community of activists that are fighting for environmental justice, I’m talking about this now, and it’s hard to even get over it.
Even driving back to Corpus, man, it’s like there’s just skylines of refineries, black smoke coming out of these refineries. This is a refinery town. I’ve had a couple friends who were in the business of selling solar power in Corpus Christi, and even those people talked about the resistance on doormats that they received from people who were like, no, we don’t want solar. We are a refinery family.
But it’s wild to even be talking to y’all here now. Just tell me how, and I guess Brandon, we’ll go to you first, and then we’ll go Chloe, but tell me how… I’ve made the case before in the past where I’m like, if you grew up around a military base in Florida or South Texas or your pathway was either go work at the refineries or go work for a prison… South of here, Willacy County, all these people, all they have to work at is at the Willacy County prison complex there. How in the world do you find yourself, however impervious you happen to be to the propaganda, to the life paths that are carved out for you, that are offered up as if this is the way you are supposed to be, how do you shun that and say, no, no, no, I have moral obligations for commitments to equality, economic justice, things that you really have to go out of your way to find cases that support this stuff. How did you do that, Brandon?
Brandon Marks: I guess for me, it’s important to set the scene. My great-grandfather moved here fleeing the persecution of Jews in Europe, and moved to a small town near Corpus called Refugio here, which means refuge.
Jules Taylor: Right. Refuge.
Brandon Marks: This is the refuge it’s turned into.
Jules Taylor: Wow.
Brandon Marks: A 10-mile stretch of refineries and the active expansion of the oil and gas industry in this area. Because there’s a list at least eight companies long of people that are actively trying to move here right now, not to mention the current facilities that are already expanding, and the people that are already breathing in the pollution who live near Refinery Row or the other oil and gas exports in San Patricio County. And so, for me, it’s like my family was looking for a refuge, and this is what the community’s turned into. I have no other option than to be a part of this fight.
Chloe Torres: Totally. I guess mine would go back to family. But on my maternal side, my grandfather owned a restaurant, and in the restaurant, he had framed portraits of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. I remember –
Jules Taylor: [inaudible] interrupt for a sec, because your family, do they ever say something like, hey, we’re actually very, very distant relatives of Emiliano, or something like that? Because my family does that. Did they do that?
Chloe Torres: I mean, they did say they were from Morelos, which is where [all laugh]… They never said they were directly related. I guess they didn’t want to… They were like, oh, she likes history. She’s going to research it [all laugh]. But I just remember him telling me stories of why so many people fled during the Mexican revolution. I think my key takeaway is that so much human suffering that has taken place since the development of colonialism and slavery and capitalism is so incredibly unnecessary. From then on, I think that was a real radicalizing point for me that it doesn’t have to be this way, and it takes people coming together to resist that notion and to demand that they be treated with dignity.
And so, I feel, again, my family really prepared me to have this automatic questioning of if things are unfair, who is making them that way, and what do we have to do to make it just? I think, again, just having people around me who were pushing me to have this wider political imagination was absolutely instrumental, because I was a typical liberal in high school. I was like, yeah, go Hillary or whatever, first woman president. They were like, well, have you read about this? I think people constantly pushing me to demand exactly what I want and make people in power explain why they won’t give it to me, and then make it impossible for them to not give into that demand or take power yourself. And so, mentorship, I could not have developed this by myself, this political trajectory of my life. It was definitely a collective effort.
Jules Taylor: I just want to touch on something that you said about escaping persecution in Europe. My family history is that we were Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition, ended up in Mexico, and became a Catholic anyway.
Brandon Marks: That’s really interesting you say that, because immigration rights is really important to me, because when my great-grandpa arrived in the US, he was deported. In the middle of the Holocaust, was deported, and he ended up living in Mexico City for a decade before coming back and getting legal citizenship in Texas.
Jules Taylor: Wow. I want to go back to Chloe, to what you said about how… I think listeners should understand that I think that there is, when you mention about growing up and every one of your peers just wanting to leave, this is the epitome of a town where you grow up and you want to leave. This entire area is like that. One thing, when you’re growing up that way and you’re like, when those questions are like, I need to leave, turns to well, why are my parents even here, dude? You start to wonder about that.
The story is that my grandfather also fled the revolution. This is a story that will be funny to some, but apparently he had a pet chicken, and they came over in a covered wagon. As they were eating dinner that night, he goes to look for his chicken. They’re like, your chicken was dinner, bro. That’s a story that was told to me about my great-grandfather, whose last name was Zapata, which is why the whole Zapata thing happens. But my thoughts when I was a kid was like, we’re living in the Rio Grande Valley, we’re not too far from the border. I was like, so would y’all come over in the covered wagon and just stop, bro. You just cross the river, and that’s where you just decide to set up camp for generations or something.
But yeah, man, family is super important. Coming back here to fight and discover that all this is going on, part of me feels like there’s a little bit of time to make up. Part of me feels like this battle’s being fought, and I want to know how I can contribute. It’s important to show solidarity. Part of the reason why we are here right now is because y’all formed a union. You’re going on strike. Chills just even talking about it, man. Cool.
Tell me about where you work, and we’ll start with you now, Chloe. Tell me about where you work, what started out like, how long you’ve been there, what it was like when you started, if things deteriorated to the point they are now, or if things have always just been that way, or what’s the whole story there?
Chloe Torres: That’s a great question. Like I said, I’m the fossil fuel exports organizer for Texas Campaign for the Environment. I started… I think it’s coming up on two years now. I started when I was still in my senior semester of college, so that was late 2021. When I started, I was like, well, I’m doing this work already, unpaid, and now I get to do it with resources, and there are so many people that I already know, again, who are doing this work, and I can be a resource to them. And so, I was really excited to start, and I still love what I do. I will say it feels really important, feels very purposeful, and that’s exactly why we’re fighting to make it better, because this community deserves better.
But when I started, it did feel chaotic. I was like, I know I have a job description, and I’m doing my onboarding, so it might take a bit to feel like I have my feet on stable ground. But then, six months passed and I was like, wow, I just feel like I’m not settling in, maybe I’m doing something wrong. But my leadership isn’t telling me that I’m doing a bad job per se, but I feel like I’m scrambling, like I have no direction. That worries me because I know how precious time is as a resource, especially when you’re doing environmental justice work. Every single day that we don’t win or that a facility gets closer and closer to being permitted here, that is another day that children, everyone in this community is getting sicker.
And so, I talked to Brandon. We were out with one of our friends and he was looking particularly stressed, and I was like, what’s on your mind? We started talking about our working conditions, and Brandon… And this is what clicked, and this is why I gave all that context of when people tell you that something isn’t right, investigate why isn’t it right. When he told me, this is not how an organization should be run, this is not normal. The way you’re feeling is a result of… Bad leadership. I’ll just say it.
From there, I started thinking, oh my God, there are other people in this organization who have been here for years. What are they feeling? And so, when we were doing this work in the middle of a pandemic, a lot of us were doing remote work. The first time we really had a chance to speak together in person, most of us, was in April. It was eye-opening, to say the least, just how similar we all felt, like we were running around directionless. It not only personally on an individual level felt bad, but we knew that our mission was to help people escape this fossil fuel apparatus. We can’t do that with the way this organization is structured now. It’s untenable.
Brandon Marks: Every single day, we are fighting toxic pollution that makes people sick, and it causes climate change. There’s no reason that we should also be having to fight a toxic work environment. Honestly, props to Chloe for when we were all together and hanging out one night in my living room with some coworkers who were in town because we have offices around the state, looked around, and was like, so when are we starting a union? That was it. Listeners, you too can start a union from the comfort of your living room, just bring your coworkers over [laughs]. That was really what started it all.
Jules Taylor: That’s why I think Christian Smalls, man, I think his method was he threw a couple barbecues, gave some people some literature, talked to them for a while, and eventually got enough people on his side that were willing to sign off on stuff. That process is different and unique for every workplace, I would imagine, in terms of length, duration, degree of intensity, all that other stuff. But for y’all, I mean, when you say it started in your front room, was it like, did y’all dispense to your various places around the state to recruit enough people in their workplaces, or is that how it went down?
Brandon Marks: It sounds probably like a normal union drive in a sense of, okay, we had our core group that had all signed on, and we needed to take a look at everyone else in the organization and intentionally have conversations with everyone, organizing conversations, to see where people were at, have they ever thought or had feelings about unions, and what their feelings were about work, and what issues they were experiencing. And let them know that we were already starting to form a union, and asked if they wanted to sign on and get involved. Let me tell you, our issues were so deeply and widely felt that we had 100% sign on.
Jules Taylor: Whoa! Wait, you’re talking about literally 100% of your people?
Brandon Marks: 100%.
Jules Taylor: How many people total is that?
Brandon Marks: Right now, 12. In total, probably 18, because we had such a high turnover rate that we started with 12 and are now at a new set of 12.
Jules Taylor: Oh, wow.
Brandon Marks: And so, we had people that at the beginning of this had signed on and were excited, and then left for a better job. It kept happening. Time and again, people kept leaving, and the organization kept hiring on new people who immediately signed on to be a part of our union drive. We remain at 100%. We started there, and we’re still there, no matter the high degree of turnover that’s going on in this organization for people that are fleeing the working conditions and the poor pay.
Jules Taylor: Max had said something on a recent Breaking Points Art of Class War segment that he did. He said something about how most people in a job feel they have one of two options, which is stay and put up with it or leave and find something else. But there’s a secret third thing, which is basically stay and fight. More and more of us are discovering that option. There are various, obviously, things that employers can do to subvert that, mainly turnover. That’s part of the reason why grad school organizing is so difficult, because it cycles out every few years.
You’re with a whole new group of 12, which means that during the time that you’ve formed the union that you had a dozen people, and out of those dozen people, I’m assuming y’all two are still members of that same original 12. There’s been at least 10 that have come and gone over what length of time?
Brandon Marks: I would say… I don’t know the exact number of how many, what the turnover is, probably somewhere between six to eight, and in nine months.
Jules Taylor: Chloe, what’s your typical day at your job like?
Chloe Torres: Well, before we opened our office, it was going to Zoom meetings with all of these statewide and national orgs. Again, these are very well-funded orgs. It’s a very professional space. I think a lot of, especially environmentally oriented nonprofits, are starting to get the hint that change doesn’t start from funders and nonprofit, very professional people, that they need to be more integrated in the communities they’re trying to organize with. But I will say, those spaces just felt very like we’re just talking in circles. We all know what the problem is, but it’s like who has the best analysis, and then never apply it on frontline organizing.
And so, I’m there, I am ready to get out and start organizing people for renewable energy, for unionized, green jobs. I’m ready to get the just transition going. What are y’all doing? Why are we just talking to each other back and forth and sending all of these emails that go nowhere? I feel like that remote work was really draining because, again, it felt very directionless, less purposeful. But thankfully, once the office opened up and we started to have a larger team with our field organizers, it was like, okay, what kind of organizers do we want to be? How can we best serve this community? We were sharing our life stories or stories of self, and we were so excited, because we had all of these ideas of, let’s start doing strategy charts around how we’re going to take down the port of Corpus Christi.
We’re like, sky’s the limit. We need radical intervention. That is the only thing that is going to get us out of facing the worst of the worst of climate crises. Again, we are a coastal community, so we are already experiencing those effects. Then, you have to constantly be reminded, I’m having these conversations with my supervisor, and he’s like, yeah, that all sounds amazing and great, and I’m really proud of you guys, but also remember that we have a board and an executive director that can veto your plans at any time.
Again, you feel like you have your footing, but you know it’s a sand trap. It can be taken away from you at any time. And so, I think already dealing with the precarity of, again, living in a coastal community, this could be the winter that we see hundreds of people die because it’s this freeze that our city, our state is not prepared for, or refuses to prepare for because they don’t give a shit whether or not poor people die. Then, trying to work against that, save people that you care about and be told that you don’t know, actually, what you’re talking about, you don’t know the best thing for you and your loved ones. We, the board, who have never… Most of them haven’t stepped foot in Corpus Christi, know better than you. That, to me, is just so, so frustrating, just as a human being, your agency being ripped away from you like that all the time is really, really hard to deal with day-to-day.
Jules Taylor: I mean, if you are given a certain amount of autonomy within a job, and you are allowed to funnel resources, effort, and time, and sweat into something that aligns with the orders or the directions you’ve been given, and if you develop that project to a point of, I mean, to be knee-capped at the apotheosis of that project over and over again, that is sure to bring up some feelings of resentment towards one’s employer, for god damn sure. I can speak to that, too, in a couple jobs that I’ve had, which is… Anyway. What you’re describing sounds like a graduate philosophy course where they talk about radical intervention and talk about, I don’t know, these discursive parameters that ultimately are for discursive purposes only, that it’s a bunch of theory that never gets turned into praxis.
At a certain point, you’re like, wait a second, talk is cheap. I feel like theory without practice is a bit of advanced liberal performatism or something. It’s all discursive stuff that you guys discussed, and if it never goes into work, then what is… It reminds me of a recent Tweet that says something like the people that encourage you to go through the proper channels encourage you to go through the proper channels because they’re in charge of those channels and they guarantee your shit’s not going to work. I totally get where you’re coming from with that.
Brandon, what’s a typical day in your job and your role like?
Brandon Marks: Honestly, there is no typical day. Let’s get into some of our issues as workers. I would say the first one is just working conditions. There is substandard pay. There are pitiful benefits with only 10 PTO days, very high deductible health insurance plan, and expectations of overworking. The lack of prioritization of the organization’s leadership means that staff are constantly given new priorities. And so, I could show up any day and have a new thing that I’m working on, and I just have to drop the thing that I used to be working on. And so, we’re talking about low pay, bad benefits, precarity for the first rung of jobs in the organization. We’re talking about excessive expectations of the amount of hours that need to be worked to get the job done, taking advantage of young people who believe so deeply in this work that they’re willing to accept lower pay and work those harder hours because they believe and they want to win.
Jules Taylor: These people make my blood boil when you’re talking about that stuff, man. To give you benefits, that’s like catastrophic healthcare masquerading as every day sort of stuff, to prey on the twinkle in the eye of youth and the energy and vigor and enthusiasm they show up with, to also play on the passion that one has for anything that translates into expectations of extra passionate work or something, or extra hours. Jesus Christ, man. I didn’t mean to interrupt you, it’s just all those things are just kind of like –
Brandon Marks: Yeah. We know we are not the only workplace that is experiencing those types of working conditions. You would just hope that a nonprofit that is fighting for environmental justice would also be modeling justice at its workplace. Instead of that, they’re modeling the aggressive behaviors of the very corporations that we are fighting. It’s devastating, and it’s hard. No one told me when I took this job that the person before me quit in absolute anger after being worked to the bone, working what I’ve been told is over 12-hour days, and with a child at home.
Chloe Torres: With a child at home.
Jules Taylor: Wow.
Brandon Marks: No one in the organization intervening. Offering words of support, but no actual intervention, because the campaign came first. But the organization wasn’t providing the resources to match the priorities that they were setting. And so, it was on that individual staff member to fill in the gap. No one told me this. Lo and behold, a year and a half later, I was in the very same situation. We got involved in the local city council elections this past election cycle. And when we were starting off, I was asking again and again for the resources that I needed for us to be successful, and they weren’t provided. For three to four months, I personally was working 12-hour days, almost six days a week. I burnt myself out and ran myself into the ground. And we won. We won two seats on the Corpus Christi City Council for progressive environmentalists.
Jules Taylor: There we go.
Brandon Marks: Which is incredible in the heart of oil and gas country, but it should not have to come at the expense of my mental and physical health, or that of the rest of the team that we had.
Jules Taylor: You want to jump in there?
Chloe Torres: Yeah. I’ll also mention the canvassing that goes on in Austin, make sure that is represented because I never knew, again, coming in, I’m a grant-funded position.
Jules Taylor: That’s its own case of anxiety.
Chloe Torres: Yeah, exactly. I keep getting told, climate change won’t always be a sexy topic for donors, so you know.
Jules Taylor: Wow.
Chloe Torres: You do what you can when you can. But our organization has typically been funded through canvassing door to door and asking for donations. What I didn’t know was how… I’ll be honest with you, I’m not cut out for that type of work. I’ll cry on people’s doorsteps. I just can’t [all laugh]. That work is hard enough as it is already, but the model, the structure of that canvass is so unbelievable. Again, you’re taking in college kids who see, oh my God, $15 an hour in Texas. That’s great in Austin – Now it’s not even the living wage in Austin. You get them in the door. You’re telling them you’re going to fight against electronic waste, or you’re going to fight against pollution. You get them out there and you tell them, okay, it’s your day one, no worries, you’re going to do great. They do have people there training them, but what they don’t tell them is if you don’t hit your fundraising goal within seven days –
Brandon Marks: If you don’t get a donation on day one, you’re fired.
Chloe Torres: You don’t get a donation on day one, you’re fired.
Jules Taylor: Wow!
Brandon Marks: Then, there are more standards to meet.
Chloe Torres: Yes. You have to constantly meet standard because you are fundraising for your job. You were talking about peak liberal performative nature. We had, for the first time in our organization’s 30 years, an anti-racism workshop. We brought up the fact that the canvassing model, the way it is structured, is set up so that white, cis, able-bodied people are the ones who are going to succeed the most. Because TCE has a priority of promoting from within, which is not, again, inherently a bad thing, but when only white men, typically white cis men are the ones who can survive and keep meeting the canvassing standard, they’re the ones who get promoted. It has led to an entirely white, male dominated leadership team. Honestly, it shows.
Jules Taylor: I mean, you’re going to go out of your way to find an all white cis male work team.
Chloe Torres: In Texas.
Jules Taylor: In Texas, especially in Corpus Christi. I’m teaching at a local college, and I have two different students that have the same Hispanic first and last name. I don’t want to say their name here, but it’s just funny. It’s so Corpus Christi to have two Hugo Hernandezes in your class or something. That’s terrible to hear that, though.
I just want to touch on, so you’re fundraising for your own job, so that seems a little weird to me that you would send the person who you give the job out to fundraise for that job, which, doesn’t that make their job into fundraising at that point? Was there an alternative description other than this person’s job is to go out to the streets and fundraise?
Brandon Marks: The job is listed as a field organizer, and people go in wanting to organize. We’ve been told that it is a bait and switch. Not only is it a bait and switch, but it is a churn and burn model. It’s get as many people in the door as possible, and we’ll see who makes it.
Jules Taylor: Well, also, it’s Corpus Christi, so I mean, this is a really sunny place for shady people. This is like, you go out and it’s 90 degrees, 100 degrees. The sun down here is no joke. When I lived in New York, it would be like 85 and people would be sweating talking about the heat that they can’t stand. I’m like, bro, I lived in Arizona. I lived in Texas, I’m not complaining about the heat. But down here, it’s like if you have a person that’s a door to door salesman, you’re like, do you need, I don’t know, electrolyte powder in your stuff? Because it’s brutal.
Brandon Marks: We currently have an office in Austin, and we also used to have canvassing offices in Dallas and Houston. And so, this was going on all over the state. What’s important to note is that everyone in Dallas has left. We don’t have a Dallas office anymore. We nearly closed the Houston office because almost everyone in Houston left.
Jules Taylor: That’s not environmental activism, that’s door-to-door fundraising for maybe campaigns that don’t happen, or campaigns that are axed, or rugs that are pulled out from underneath you.
Brandon Marks: Yeah.
Chloe Torres: I think that was one of the biggest complaints, is that they would – They being executive leadership, would consult with not even necessarily so much the field organizers, canvassers, but the canvass directors and ask them for their input on campaign ideas. They’d tweak it to where it would still be maybe recognizable, but again, that precarity we’re talking about, it could just be ripped away at any moment. Again, it goes back to how frustrating it is to be working so hard. The canvass directors said that they have never had a year where someone didn’t pass out from heat exhaustion. You have people chasing you off their porch with guns. You have racial slurs, gendered slurs tossed at you, people sicking their dogs on you. They are literally the lifeblood of the organization, and they are treated the worst.
Brandon Marks: If I can, on top of that, you also have people that get bitten by dogs out in the fields and are pushed to quickly get back out, to not take too many days off. You have people that are pushed to work while they’re sick, to not take days off. On top of that, TCE was bringing its canvassers to Austin for the Texas legislative session and not paying them.
Jules Taylor: Wow.
Brandon Marks: And so, unpaid labor, I can’t even believe that that’s what this organization used to do. They may not do it today, but it’s the same people in charge.
Jules Taylor: Tell me about this strike. Y’all probably voted to do that, I would think. The strike vote, when did it go down, and what was that like?
Brandon Marks: [Chloe laughs] I don’t even remember. It was unanimous. It was not even a conversation.
Jules Taylor: Cool.
Brandon Marks: The reason that we are going on strike is because we are asking the Texas Campaign for the Environment and our executive director, Robin Schneider, and the TCE board to voluntarily recognize our union. The reason for that is because we don’t want to go through an election. We don’t want to worry about the NLRB taking members out of our unit. We just want our full frontline staff to be in this union. Like a progressive organization, they should say, great, we see that 100% of people have signed on, y’all have a union. Let’s start negotiating a contract.
Instead of that, the executive director and the board have fought us, telling us they won’t recognize our union unless we remove people from the union. They want us to make the unit and the union smaller. They specifically want us to take out frontline supervisors, middle management, who have absolutely no power in the organization, but that who our executive director has stated in a letter to us that she wants their sole loyalty to be to TCE, the executive director, and the board, not have a split organizational loyalty with the union and their coworkers.
Jules Taylor: You’re fighting for the PMCs too. You’re like bringing middle management in on this union of like, hey, you’re not too different from us. You have the same precarity and the same powerlessness in this organization. Wow.
Brandon Marks: It’s not just the same powerlessness, but we are fighting for an effective organization. Because as Chloe talked about, right now our organization is ineffective; lack of priorities, lack of real plans, and what we want is to win environmental justice. We believe so deeply in this organization’s mission and vision that we want it to be an effective vehicle for these campaigns. The only way to do that is to have a strong union that can fight for not only internal, but also external equity in the way we treat staff and the way we run campaigns. We know the only way for that to happen is to have a strong union that includes the middle management. Because if the middle management is excluded, they’re at the mercy of the senior leadership team, which has shown their willingness to overwork people, mistreat people, and to force them to do their bidding, to fire people when they don’t want to. It really grinds my gears that…
Jules Taylor: You can curse, bro. It’s okay. You can say it pisses you off and these are…
Brandon Marks: We know that what this is a fight over is really power, that the executive director and the board know that if middle management continues to exist in precarity, they have more power in this organization than their workers because they can direct the middle management to do whatever they want. They can continue to switch between campaigns willy-nilly, dropping ones that we’d worked so hard on, starting new ones without any clear plan to win. They can force the middle management to mistreat the staff that are on the front lines with them. And so, that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for an equitable workplace with a union that includes every single person that wants to be in it. Every single person that is on the front lines, myself included. I’m in one of the two middle management titles that the exec director and board are fighting us to exclude.
Jules Taylor: Well, I think as a key member of that union, they want to exclude you. Wow. It wasn’t really a vote, it was just a conversation. It was like, all right, everybody, cool. We’re going on a one-day strike, right?
Brandon Marks: We tried to negotiate for five months, and we tried so hard to keep this –
Jules Taylor: Well, it’s hard to negotiate with somebody who won’t even recognize you though, right? I mean, apparently, the first step towards negotiation is recognition. It’s that they’re like, nah, this is our table you can’t have a seat at, and we notice the chair that you brought, and we want to disallow you from sitting down, kind of thing.
Chloe Torres: Absolutely.
Jules Taylor: All this is fucked up, man. I’m glad you guys are taking action towards it. I’m glad y’all have organized and have secured an actual union, then it’s at this final step, and of course they don’t want to recognize that. This one-day strike, when is it happening?
Chloe Torres: It’s happening Monday, Feb. 6.
Jules Taylor: Is there an action going on with this? Are y’all picketing or anything like that?
Chloe Torres: We made a little joke at our union meeting this morning about we’re not working for TCE that day, but we’re working for our union that day.
Brandon Marks: That’s right.
Chloe Torres: We’re taking a variety of actions including, we had over almost 600 people sign on a letter of support telling Robin and the board to recognize our union as we have proposed it.
Jules Taylor: How many people have you had sign that so far?
Chloe Torres: I think it’s like 596.
Jules Taylor: It’s like 596, huh? Working People listeners, we’re going to leave a link in the show notes. We need everybody who hears this to go and sign off on that. I’m not sure when we’re going to. Obviously your thing is on Monday, we’re recording this, it’s Friday today. I got this weekend to pull this off and get it published. But even if we publish this on Monday and your one-day strike is going on, Working People listeners, please still go and sign off on that. It’s a way that is free to show solidarity, and we’d really appreciate it if we get a few more hundred on there for you guys to put you over the top of 1,000 by the time you guys present that. Do you present that on Monday? Is that when you’re doing it?
Brandon Marks: We presented it a week and a half ago.
Jules Taylor: Presented it a week ago. Great.
Chloe Torres: But we’ll take sign-on, bring your staff.
Jules Taylor: Yeah.
Brandon Marks: Even if you listen to this on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.
Jules Taylor: You in the future, sign up on this thing, all right?
Brandon Marks: Especially if you work in or know people in the broader environmental justice community, we need y’all’s support, because we are in this work with you and we all need just workplaces so that we can run effective campaigns. Please support us, get your friends to support us, get your executive directors to support us, because this is a fight for all of us and the communities that we work in.
Jules Taylor: I saw that there was a few hundred dollars raised after Saturday’s show with the merch booth, so I was very happy about that. We’re also going to leave a link to the strike fund donation page in the show notes as well. This will be going out on the main feed as soon as I can get the stuff together to synchronize all these various microphones which we have around here. But it’ll be on the main feed. And by way of closing out, because I don’t want to keep y’all forever, Chloe, do you have any closing remarks? Then, Brandon, we’ll go to you.
Chloe Torres: Oh, wow. I just hope that everyone listening, I think we all know that the world doesn’t have to be this way and it can be really, really daunting, because you’re always asking yourself, who am I? That imposter syndrome really beats my ass a lot. Who am I to be a part of this historic work? But you have to remember who you came from, and all of the examples throughout human history of it just takes a few of us getting together in a room, or it doesn’t even have to be a room. There’s a June Jordan poem that is like, hey, all you people, we’re meeting outside at this tree. It ain’t even been planted yet. Plant your tree today, however you can, and we love you. We’re in this with you, and thank you for your support.
Brandon Marks: Y’all, we’re the Texas Environmental Workers Union. We’re the staff union at the –
Jules Taylor: Woo!
Brandon Marks: We are the staff union at the Texas Campaign for the Environment. We are proudly represented by the communication workers of America. If you are a supporter, a member, a funder, if you’ve ever heard of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, we are going on strike on Monday, Feb. 6, and we need your support. Check us out. T… T-W-E. Nope [Chloe and Jules laugh]. Let me try again.
Jules Taylor: It’s okay.
Brandon Marks: Check us out at www.tewunion.org. Thank you.