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Why unionizing is an uphill battle for so many Central Texas workers

Texas typically isn't known as a union-friendly state, but more employees are trying to change that – here's why.

AUSTIN, Texas — A wave of employees calling to unionize is flooding the country, including Texas, but what's causing it?

According to federal data, just under 4% of workers are members of unions here.

Within the past year, we've seen two local Starbucks locations, an Alamo Drafthouse and Integral Care employees all try to unionize in Austin. The groups are pushing for things like better pay and safer work environments.

So what's causing this shift? Experts say there are multiple factors, including inflation, rallying for social justice and unsafe working environments during the pandemic. 

"One is what has happened since COVID," said Michael Z. Green, a labor law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law. "Two, you do have more support in the federal administration and the Biden administration. Then three, the new generation of workers who are coming into the workplace and taking this on as activists themselves."

Green said the influx of people moving to Texas also plays a role. He said, for example, California has more employee-centered laws.

"California is generally known as a state that has many more laws addressing worker protections," said Green. "So certainly if you have people who are migrating from states where they believe, where they've seen that in practice, it can certainly affect their beliefs."

Green said there's a misconception that people can't unionize in Texas. You can, but it may not be easy.

Texas is a right-to-work state, meaning an employee can't be forced to join a union to work somewhere. Green said that makes it harder to maintain a union. He noted in right-to-work states, unions still have to support employees who do not pay dues, which in turn hurts unions in those states. 

Along with most states, Texas has an "at-will" employment policy. That means an employer can fire someone for pretty much any reason with a few exceptions, including being part of a union. 

Trying to unionize, Green said, could create risks for employees. 

"There has been a lot of data that shows once a union organizing campaign starts, a lot of the leaders of those campaigns are really at risk for losing their jobs," said Green. 

Those are risks that Green said some local workers are willing to take to live comfortably.

We expect an update on the unionization efforts of those Austin businesses within the next few months. 

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to recognize House staff members' right to unionize after announcing an increase to their minimum pay.

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