Texas’s “Death Star Bill” Is an Attack on Workers and Democracy

The newly passed HB 2127 is yet another attempt by the GOP-controlled state legislature to impose minority rule over the state of Texas. It’s the working class that will pay the price — and the working class that must organize to fight back.

Texas governor Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference at the Texas State Capitol on June 8, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Just days after Governor Greg Abbott signed HB 2127 into law in Texas, a thirty-five-year-old lineman died of heatstroke while trying to restore power to Texans after a major storm. Another man in Dallas died of heat exhaustion while working for the US Postal Service just days after that. Texas is among the most dangerous places to work in the country. From absent and under-enforced labor laws to the scalding heat, millions of Texans are under threat just trying to make a living. Unfortunately, HB 2127 will make it harder to protect Texas workers.

HB 2127 is a sweeping “preemption” bill that bars cities and localities from passing city ordinances in a huge array of policy areas defined in state code. The legislation’s broad power grab jeopardizes popular, sometimes lifesaving local policies, including water break and heat safety mandates for construction workers in cities like Austin and Dallas.

HB 2127, labeled the “Death Star Bill” by the Texas AFL-CIO, will go into effect on September 1. The bill will block cities and local governments from passing regulations on issues like labor protections, housing, and health care. Effectively, it will bar local governments in Texas from governing, hampering democracy in the state.

The legislation’s specific contours will have to be fought out and defined in court cases. What’s already clear is that it’s part of a larger trend of minority rule, removing power from everyday Texans and concentrating it under Abbott and the Texas GOP. Sweeping preemption stacks onto gerrymandered electoral maps, Republican-controlled legislative committees, the governor’s veto, partisan voter suppression, and conservative-held higher courts.

Despite the heavy blow, it’s imperative for working-class Texans to recognize that they can take advantage of their critical position in the Texas economy. The GOP likes to tout the economic successes of Texas using abstractions like the “business climate.” But it’s workers, not rich politicians and business owners, who make the economy run — and that means workers have power.

What Is HB 2127?

HB 2127 author Republican Dustin Burrow describes the legislation as a “stay in your lane bill,” arguing that regulations passed at the local level put an unfair burden on businesses to comply with a “patchwork” of policies. By creating consistency, in the words of Burrows and his supporters, the bill will ensure that business owners in Texas aren’t overburdened by regulation. The real rationale for the bill is obvious: the GOP has a gridlock on the state legislature, but not on local governments, and the bill shifts the balance of power in the favor of Republicans and corporate elites.

The broadly written bill prohibits cities and localities from passing local regulations on any subject that state code supersedes. Beyond the jargon and economic euphemisms, HB 2127 will undo measures that provide worker protection, renters’ rights, safeguards against lending abuse, and more.

One provision in HB 2127 also threatens local politicians directly. It strips elected officials of qualified immunity and can make them liable for lawsuits. Currently, in a lawsuit over policy, the city would be the party being sued. This change means that individual mayors and city council members can be sued and held personally liable, which will have a major chilling effect on elected officials willing to pursue progressive and pro-worker legislation.

While the Texas Legislature is taking away power from cities and localities, it is empowering the weaponization of courts on a partisan political map. As included in the bill, “change in venue” provisions mean that an elected official in Travis County, which Biden carried with over 70 percent percent of the vote, could be sued in Burnet County, where Trump won with over 76 percent of the vote. Litigation can start in counties contiguous to the original harm — and with the exception of the Rio Grande Valley, a red county touches basically every blue county in Texas.

It’s already difficult to motivate elected officials in safe blue cities to pursue progressive legislation. Personal liability in partisan courts means that even our more progressive and grassroots-based elected officials may be hesitant to put themselves personally at risk, and that movements may lose key allies and their bully pulpit in pushing for ballot propositions.

In a cruel coincidence, Abbott signed the bill during a historic heat wave, with temperatures climbing well above one hundred degrees across the state. The full picture of heat-related deaths in Texas is not known: misreporting of workplace deaths, like the death of Antelmo Ramirez at the Tesla Gigafactory near Austin, obscures the full picture. Even so, Texas leads the country in worker deaths from heat exposure.

Barring a legal challenge to the bill, mandated water breaks in Austin and Dallas are likely to be rolled back once the bill goes into effect on September 1. As for cities like San Antonio, where local movements have been pushing for these commonsense mandates, the bill will likely block them from going into effect. There is no federal standard for protection for workers from the risks of heat-related injuries in labor-intensive work, nor are there protections for workers at the state level in Texas. The bill could mean that the ability to pass labor laws will belong solely to the Texas Legislature, a body that has shown virtually zero interest in workers’ issues.

While Republicans dominate the Texas Legislature and statewide offices, progressives in Texas have been making significant gains in the state’s major cities and largely populated counties. Recent successes range from the decriminalization of marijuana to paid sick leave to water breaks. While the GOP is able to maintain its grip on power at the state level through gerrymandering and the weakness of the Texas Democratic Party, it’s threatened by the growing victories of the progressive movement at the local level.

In the most recent legislative session, there were multiple attempts to curtail local democracy, from a failed attempt to take away home rule in Austin, to the successful passage of HB 17, which will allow Texas courts to remove elected prosecutors (a response to prominent Texas cities’ district attorneys not prosecuting people for abortions). HB 2127 is the most recent — and most brazen — attempt to deny millions of Texans their right to local democracy.

How to Fight Back

The preemption bill will certainly have a chilling effect on the progressive strategy of using local government to get victories that aren’t yet possible at the Texas Legislature. We don’t know yet how local politicians and city and district attorneys will respond. But Texas’s working class can’t wait. We must fight back with various tactics, best when combined, to break the impasse.

HB 2127 has been framed by both supporters and detractors as local control versus regulatory consistency. Accepting the Right’s framing is a losing strategy. HB 2127 is about a minority attempting to overrule a majority. The vast majority of Texans now live in cities; according to the US Census, 90 percent of Texans live in urban areas. While the war on major cities may play well in Texas GOP primaries, it poses a major harm to ordinary working-class people.

Cities across the world have played a unique political role in the last decade, offering unprecedented resistance to exploitation and oppression, and Texas is no exception. Texas cities and local governments are capable of presenting a united front in their dissent against this disastrous bill, as they did when the legislature attacked sanctuary cities, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and during the effort to protect mask mandates in schools to stop the spread of COVID-19. Lining up concurrent lawsuits so that HB 2127 is subjected to multiple legal challenges at once is one way to throw this obscure bill into open conflict in front of the public. Coordination of this kind, if done right, can polarize the city-versus-state, majority-versus-minority power struggle in ways that can be capitalized on by community organizations, rank-and-file labor unions, and grassroots media.

Workers must also recognize the special role that they play in the state economy, and the power that comes with it. Texas is a massive economy: if it were its own nation it would have the ninth largest economy in the world, as the Texas GOP loves to point this out. But this success does not come from politicians. It comes from millions of workers, who are predominantly living in the state’s major cities. From Toyota workers in San Antonio, to ExxonMobil workers in Beaumont, to Amazon and UPS employees across Texas, workers from all over the state can win concessions from their employers even if city governments are unable to mandate them.

We should support statewide and national efforts like the Teamsters’ fight to win air-conditioning in their upcoming contract with UPS. And should they strike in the event of a failure to reach a deal with basic safety, fair wages, and dignity intact, Texans should take note of the confrontation. Legislation is not the only way to win protections. Sometimes the fight must take place between workers and employers directly.

Democratic socialists and progressives across Texas will need to link their movements — from El Paso to Beaumont, Brownsville to Dallas — and fight on multiple fronts, including both the electoral and labor arenas. Texas has a radical history, from the pecan-sheller strikes in San Antonio to the Fence Cutting Wars to the early Texas socialist party. These movements all had to take on entrenched capitalists and hostile state governments to win victories for working-class Texans. Our fight today is the same.