On a sweltering Tuesday in Washington, D.C., laborers from diverse sectors, ranging from construction workers to airport baggage handlers, assembled on the steps of the Capitol to champion a basic human right – water. This motley crew had journeyed all the way from Texas to stage a poignant ‘vigil and thirst strike,’ aimed at protesting a law that Texas Governor Greg Abbott had recently penned.
Christened the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act or House Bill 2127, this new law is ominously known as the “Death Star” among critics. It was enacted during a month when Texas recorded 13 heat-related deaths amidst a heatwave threatening to smash previous records. This bill, backed by the business and construction sectors, sought to replace local regulations with a single state-level framework. However, a grim side effect was the eradication of local ordinances providing workers with protections against extreme heat, including mandatory water breaks.
As the temperature gauge tipped 91 degrees in the capital, the 30-plus crowd held aloft signs proclaiming “Working Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence” and “People Over Profits.” Their focus remained unwavering – the plight of their colleagues in their home state where temperatures had soared into triple digits.
Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), the organizer of the protest, was joined by civil rights activist Dolores Huerta and members of San Juan, Texas-based La Unión del Pueblo Entero. Together, they abstained from food and drink for eight hours, a symbolic gesture of solidarity with outdoor workers in Texas and a push for a national reversal of Abbott’s draconian law.
Casar, dripping with sweat, highlighted the fundamental nature of these rights: “A basic thing like the right to a water break…is the baseline of what our democracy should be able to do.” Huerta, a labor rights veteran who co-founded La Unión, paralleled this struggle with the 1960s California farmworkers’ strike that sought basic necessities like job security, bathroom access, and water during the day. “This is such a cruel thing,” Huerta remarked.
Prominent progressive legislators like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and members of “The Squad” voiced their support for the cause. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) issued a challenge to Gov. Abbott: spend a day without water in the air-conditioned governor’s mansion, or better yet, a day with the workers braving the elements.
At the forefront of the protest were Jasmine and Daisy Granillo, sisters of a construction worker who succumbed to heat exhaustion in 2015. Their brother, Roendy, was denied a water break while installing hardwood flooring in a non-ventilated house on a day with temperatures in the high 90s. “A simple water break, could have prevented his death,” said Jasmine. The sisters were there to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring.
Unfortunately, Abbott’s law, set to become active on September 1, will dissolve local ordinances providing mandatory water breaks and bar similar ones from being established. The protesters, however, remained steadfast, vowing to prevent corporate interests from thwarting their fight for national legislation.
“It’s definitely taking a toll on our community,” remarked Taylor Critendon, a registered nurse in attendance, underscoring the surge in heat exhaustion cases in her care. Tania Chavez Camacho, president of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, encapsulated the gravity of the situation: “We’re sweating” and “it’s really, really hot. Can you imagine what it is like for construction workers every single day?”
In a world becoming increasingly aware of human rights, this thirst strike stands as a glaring testament to the basic rights being denied to workers, a clarion call for immediate change.