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Texas Rep. Greg Casar on Why He Undertook “Thirst Strike” to Demand Heat Protections for Workers

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Image Credit: Aaron Schwartz/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

As nearly half of Americans face heat advisories, President Biden announced new steps Thursday to provide relief, and Texas Congressmember Greg Casar held an eight-hour thirst strike Tuesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the need for a federal workplace heat standard, including mandatory water breaks for workers. This comes as Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed legislation overturning local rules for mandatory workplace water breaks. “It is a slap in the face. It is dangerous. It will get people killed. But most of all, it’s disrespectful to working people,” says Casar. “I’m outraged, but, unfortunately, not surprised.” At least 2,000 workers in the United States die every year from heat exposure, and the risk is likely to increase as the planet continues to warm due to the climate crisis.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

As temperatures soar across the United States for a second month, and nearly half of Americans face heat advisories, President Biden announced new steps Thursday to provide relief.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’m announcing additional steps to help states and cities deal with the consequences of extreme heat. First, I’ve asked Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su to issue a heat hazard alert. It clarifies that workers have a federal heat-related — have federal heat-related protections. We should be protecting workers from hazardous conditions, and we will. And those states where they do not, I’m going to be calling them out, where they refuse to protect these workers in this awful heat. Second, the acting secretary of labor will work with her team to intensify enforcement, increasing inspections in high-risk industries like construction and agriculture. This work builds on the national standard that the Labor Department is already developing for workforce and workplace heat safety rules.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes after Texas congressmember, former labor organizer Greg Casar held an eight-hour thirst strike Tuesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the need for a federal workplace heat standard which includes mandatory water breaks for workers. He was joined by elected officials and advocates, including United Farm Workers legend Dolores Huerta, as well as workers like Fernando Arista, an electrician from Austin, who spoke out against a new Texas law banning water breaks.

FERNANDO ARISTA: Proponents of this bill, they talk about business. They say it will help out business, and it will help out the Texas economy. Well, we workers are part of the Texas economy. And if it will help out businesses, it’ll help out businesses at the exploitation of workers.

AMY GOODMAN: At least 2,000 workers in the United States die every year from heat exposure.

On Monday, Texas Congressmember Casar and more than 110 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, urging them to fast-track federal protections for outdoor workers in order to prevent more deaths. It cited the recent deaths of two workers in Texas: quote, “In Dallas, Texas, a USPS employee of over 40 years died while on his route in 115-degree heat. In Harrison County, Texas, a 35-year-old lineman working to restore power died, likely from heat exhaustion.”

For more, we go to Capitol Hill to speak with Congressmember Greg Casar of Texas, whose district stretches from San Antonio to Austin.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Congressmember. We hope that you’re now getting plenty of water. But talk about, back home, in your state, what’s happening to workers who work outside. And talk about that thirst strike you went on Tuesday.

REP. GREG CASAR: Amy, thanks so much for having me on and covering such a critical topic, that everyday people are talking about at home but usually doesn’t get enough attention here on Capitol Hill.

We are experiencing a global heat wave, the hottest July in recorded history. In San Antonio, we had the hottest two weeks in our history. And during this heat wave, our governor decided to sign a law taking workers’ right away from them to a water break. And so we decided to fight back.

We fought back in the traditional way of a letter with over 110 members of Congress and U.S. senators, but we decided to push back also with direct action, in the kind of tradition of Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers, in the recent tradition of politicians like Wendy Davis staging a filibuster for reproductive rights or Cori Bush sleeping on the Capitol steps to prevent evictions during the pandemic. We held a thirst strike, where I stood on those Capitol steps in the sun for about nine hours, from morning until I had to go inside and vote.

But we also used that opportunity to raise the voices of workers so the president could hear them and finally enact workplace protections, dignity and decency on the job, water breaks, shade, these basic rights. And if the president gets that done, he can overturn these extreme corporate right-wing leaders like Greg Abbott and protect workers, not just in Texas but across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember, this isn’t your first thirst strike. You did one in Austin in 2010 — you were the youngest councilmember in Austin — in Dallas in 2015. One of those who joined you this week at your thirst strike on Capitol Hill was Jasmine Granillo, the sister of Roendy Granillo, a construction worker who died from heat stroke on the job in 2015 and was denied a water break at his construction job. This is a clip from the PBS documentary Death on the Job with one of Granillo’s family members describing what happened to him on the day he died.

GUSTAVO GRANILLO: [translated] Roendy started feeling sick at 10 a.m. in the morning. He told his boss that he wasn’t feeling well, and he was never told he could stop working. They just shoved him aside. His temperature was 110 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time he got to the hospital, his organs, his heart, his pancreas, and all of his organs, there was nothing they could do.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Texas state Representative Armando Walle speaking in 2021 in the state Legislature about Roendy Granillo, the construction worker in Dallas named who died from heat stroke, whose family fought to pass — protect other workers from the same fate.

REP. ARMANDO WALLE: Roendy would work from 7 a.m., members, to 11 p.m., some weekends included. The day he passed, he complained to the contractor at 10 a.m. that he couldn’t feel his hand. By 12 p.m., he stopped talking. By 4:47 p.m., members, 4:47, members, he passed away. Roendy died in the hospital at 7 p.m. His body temperature reached 109, 109 degrees, according to the medical examiner’s report. Roendy’s stomach was empty when he died. He was working 16-hour days in July without receiving water breaks or meal breaks.

To honor the death of their son, Roendy Granillo’s parents led the fight — led the fight at the city of Dallas to win a water break ordinance. They were committed to protecting other families from losing a child to a heat-related illness.

AMY GOODMAN: From the Texas state House to where you are, Congressmember Greg Casar, in the U.S. Capitol now, as you’re a congressmember from Texas, can you go more into detail? I think people around the country are just shocked to hear that the Republican governor of Texas, Abbott, has signed into law a bill that overturns municipal requirements for water breaks in this record heat, among other things that it overturns, that it prevents in municipalities.

REP. GREG CASAR: It is a slap in the face. It is dangerous. It’ll get people killed. But most of all, it’s disrespectful to working people. And when people are astonished that Governor Abbott has signed a law taking away people’s right to a water break, I’m outraged, but, unfortunately, not surprised, because this bill, taking away workers’ rights, has been a top priority for big corporate interests in Texas for years, and that makes it a top priority for folks like Governor Abbott.

And the only way we can take on that big corporate money is through organized people. And that’s why I was so proud to stand on those Capitol steps all day in the sun alongside the Granillo family, to deliver them a United States flag flown over the Capitol on the eight-year anniversary of their brother and son’s death at age 25, his organs cooked by exploitation and by disrespect of working people. But we refuse to let those workers just become a statistic. That’s why we have to raise workers’ voices. And I think the president calling out Governor Abbott and this law, just two days after this strike, should serve as an inspiration that workers, organized, can make a difference.

The president listening is an important first step, but now he’s got to do the most important second step, which is get something done. We have to declare a climate emergency, pass heat protections for all workers, and go beyond that, give everybody the right to a union, get everybody a living wage, transition Texas workers from the fossil fuel industry to the renewable energy industry, and save countless workers’ lives in the future; otherwise, we’re all going to be paying for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Critics have called this bill in Texas, this now law, the “Death Star” law, which, of course, is a play on the “Lone Star State,” Texas. How would what President Biden could do, how would it challenge what Abbott has done? How would it overturn this mandate that overturns municipal laws?

REP. GREG CASAR: In 2010, I led a thirst strike in Austin, where we didn’t drink water on the steps of Austin City Hall, and that helped beat back corporate interests and got people the access to water breaks on the job in Austin. We did the same thing in Dallas in 2015.

Now that Abbott is overturning those laws, we have a chance to go over his head. The president can put in place, through his own authority — this doesn’t require an act of Congress — federal heat protections that guarantee everyone across the country the right to a water break, the right to come off of a scaffold, the right to stop working and take a break if you’re feeling sick in the sun. And that’s what we need as temperatures get worse, because this summer has been bad, but we know the next one can only get worse after that.

So we need to get that action immediately done. You said in an earlier segment that sometimes that takes years, and that’s unacceptable. And that’s why we need people organizing and raising their voices, like they did at this thirst strike, so that we could start overturning oppressive actions by right-wing governments in the South, in the same way that the Voting Rights Act, signed by a Texas president, because people of conscience here took on oppressive governors and governments in the South, the Voting Rights Act brought voting rights back to the South. We have to do the same thing on reproductive rights. And we have to do the same thing on workers’ rights, as well. We can’t just give up because governors are participating in the cruelty Olympics as people like Abbott and DeSantis try to outdo each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Greg Casar, I want to thank you for being with us, Democrat from Texas whose district stretches from San Antonio to Austin, held an eight-our thirst strike Tuesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the need for a federal workplace heat standard which includes mandatory water breaks for workers.

Coming up, President Biden has designated a national monument honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. We’ll speak with Emmett Till’s cousin, who was with him on the night of his lynching. Back in 30 seconds.

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