January 15, 2020: Civil Rights Conference for MLK; New House speaker for Texas Legislature; TRS healthcare will cover vaccine; Ted Cruz needs to resign


Remembering MLK and Labor: Register for the virtual Civil and Human Rights Conference

Banner for Conference above MLK waving to large Washington DC crowd

For more than 25 years, the AFL-CIO’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday observance has brought together union members annually to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King, perform community service, and examine current civil and human rights issues.

This year’s virtual conference reinforces the historic bond between the labor and civil rights movements, honors Dr. King’s vision on the importance of collective action—whether at the voting booth or at the workplace—and mobilizes participants to continue their work to make Dr. King’s dream a reality. Registration is free with programs through today, January 15, and tomorrow, January 16.

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Texas House elects new speaker who pledges to prioritize public education

Dade Phelan slamming down the gavel on passage of a resolutionNewly-elected Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan

The Texas House and Senate both convened this week for the start of the 87th Legislature, which runs through May 31. The House elected a new speaker, Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), and passed its rules before adjourning until January 26.

The Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), also passed rules this week, including a controversial provision that allows a bill to come to the floor for debate with the approval of just 18 senators. (For many years the Senate operated on 21 votes needed, until it was lowered to 19 by Patrick in 2015.) As expected, the rule change passed on party lines, with all Democrats voting no. The threshold originally was designed to protect the minority party or viewpoint from being excluded from input on bills. But after the Democrats picked up another Senate seat this year, Patrick and his Republican colleagues lowered that threshold again to give Republicans a more unimpeded path to passing their priority bills.

In Phelan’s acceptance speech before the House, he pledged to make public education a priority. “We’re gonna do our best to make sure our commitment to public education is strong,” Phelan told KXAN news. “When you go look at your personal budget …whatever I spend the most money on is the most important thing,” Phelan said. “And the most important thing here in Texas is education.”

The state will still grapple with a $1 billion budget deficit from the current biennium announced Monday by Comptroller Glenn Hegar in his Biennial Revenue Estimate. Texas AFT will work to ensure those pledging to support our schools live up to their words, especially as the Comptroller predicts the state will have less money to spend as compared with last Session.

Unfortunately, many of the pandemic-related rules passed this week have the potential to stifle public participation. Despite advocacy from Texas AFT and other groups, the rules did not outline a process for virtual public testimony by the public. Instead, plans are in the works for the public to submit testimony through a virtual “portal” in writing—something that, while convenient, doesn’t carry the weight of in-person testimony by members of the public.

The rules make provisions for public, in-person, testimony in front of two members of a committee, with the rest of the lawmakers participating remotely. However, with Austin in the middle of a Stage 5 pandemic and continued reports of limited safety precautions at the Capitol building, Texas AFT has concerns about the safety and utility of in-person witnesses testifying before a nearly empty dais.

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TRS health care will cover COVID-19 vaccinations

Collage of TRS logo on phone, and woman on screenThe Teacher Retirement System of Texas is reminding members that its health plans will cover FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines at no cost. TRS will consider the vaccination as a part of preventive healthcare. TRS has also created a resource hub on its website regarding vaccine distribution.

Information that is helpful to note:

  • Texas is currently administering vaccines in Phase 1A and Phase 1B
  • TRS-ActiveCare and TRS-Care Standard participants should bring both their Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas and CVS Caremark ID cards to appointments.
  • TRS-Care Medicare Advantage participants should bring their United Healthcare ID card to appointments.
  • There is a limited supply of vaccines during the initial release. After you identify a local provider or clinic, be sure to call ahead and ask about availability.


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Sunset Commission adopts recommendations for changes in TRS operations

Etched stone sign for TRS at its headquartersThe Texas Sunset Commission met this week and adopted legislative recommendations for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS)—the culmination of a year’s worth of investigation and collaboration between Sunset staff, TRS, and organizations representing Texas retirees. The recommendations outline possible legislative changes and actions by TRS staff that do not need legislation.

Recommendations from Reps. John Cyrier and Terry Canales, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. all fall within the four issues Sunset staff identified as part of their agency review. They would require TRS:

  • to develop a communication and outreach plan to help repair the relationship between TRS and its members and to respond to member health care issues in a timely fashion;
  • to publish staff incentives tied to fund performance and the incentive plan in the TRS comprehensive annual financial report for greater transparency;
  • to improve efforts to return member contributions to inactive members;
  • to appoint an ombudsman to report directly to the TRS board regarding complaints and appeals by members and to track member satisfaction; and
  • to provide more comprehensive information on TRS-Care healthcare costs, including out-of-pocket costs to retirees;

Sen. Angela Paxton also added a recommendation to address the penalty structure for retirees who return to work in a more equitable and less punitive fashion. It specifies that TRS members who retire after January 1, 2011, and exceed employment-after-retirement limitations, are subject to either a dollar-for-dollar reduction in their monthly annuity or forfeiture of their full monthly annuity, whichever is less. The dollar-for-dollar reduction does not apply if a disability retiree exceeds the 90-day limit for a school year unless other existing exceptions for disability retirees apply.


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Local Leader Profile: Shonda Below of Northeast Houston AFTShonda Below

In six years as a local union, Northeast Houston AFT has been an active voice for employees in three school districts—Channelview, Galena Park, and Sheldon ISDs—in the Houston area. Throughout it all, Shonda Below has served as president of the local union, having been re-elected most recently in May 2020.

Shonda took some time to share more about her experience as a union leader and the work happening on the ground, including how to build power and address members’ issues. Read the full profile here.

Socorro AFT to dedicate a tribute to popular teacher who died from COVID-19

Socorro AFT was sad to hear of the tragic loss of one of their own. Zelene Blancas, 35, was a BlancasSocorro AFT member and first grade teacher at Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary School, tragically died due to COVID-19 complications on December 28.

Union members remember her for her kind spirit, and she was featured in a viral video two years ago that showed her offering her students a pick of a hug, hand shake, high five, or fist bump for their goodbye each day. Socorro AFT will be honoring Blancas’ life with a special memorial bench. A link to donate to Blancas’ memorial will be made available by Socorro AFT shortly.

Texas AFT passes resolution demanding Sen. Ted Cruz and others resign in wake of Capitol riots

Ted CruzThe Texas AFT Executive Council demands the immediate resignation of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cruz’s actions involving the January 6 U.S. Capitol riot and attempted coup were dangerous, irresponsible, and reckless. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said, “U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was a key player in an attempted violent coup of our democratic system of government that resulted in five people being killed and disrupted almost 250 years of peaceful transitions of power within our government. People of good conscience must hold our leaders accountable and therefore, we demand Sen. Cruz’s immediate resignation.” \

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