Big Labor is looking to exploit the devastation of Hurricane Harvey to raise money for its organizing efforts in Texas.
The Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, a labor-affiliated group looking to make inroads in right-to-work Texas, launched the Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund in the wake of the flooding that has devastated the Houston area. The donation page says the fund will "move the material aid the most vulnerable hit by Harvey," but that "material" goes beyond standard humanitarian aid. Donations, the page says, will help the SEIU-funded group organize workers.
"Your donation is vital to ensuring that we have the resources we need to organize and fight for Texans devastated by Hurricane Harvey," the page says.
The relief fund is sponsored by a number of prominent liberal advocacy groups and politically influential unions: the SEIU; Communication Workers of America; Faith in Texas, a group that fights for "economic and racial justice"; Texas RioGrande Legal Aid; Texas Housers, an affordable housing advocate; and the labor-affiliated Workers Defense Project. While the group says it will meet the "first response" needs of residents, it plans to use the fund to advance its organizing agenda.
"Together we will organize and advocate for our devastated communities, shining a spotlight on inequalities that emerge in the restoration of lives, livelihoods, and homes, amplifying the needs of hard-hit communities, and providing legal assistance for residents wrongfully denied government support," the page says.
The campaign has won the endorsement of Women's March organizer and anti-Israel activist Linda Sarsour.
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) August 29, 2017
Hurricane Harvey has killed at least 20, a total that is expected to rise as clean-up goes underway, driven tens of thousands of residents from their homes, and will cause billions of dollars in damage to one of America's largest cities.
Labor watchdogs criticized the group for exploiting the tragedy to finance its political agenda. Michael Saltsman, research director for the pro-free market Employment Policy Institute, said that the Texas Organizing Project should be satisfied with the "large sums of money they get from labor unions to support a southern strategy for workplace organizing," rather than fundraising off of the community's devastation.
"The fine print for this so-called ‘relief fund' makes clear that it funds workplace organizing efforts, rather than direct aid for Harvey victims," he said. "If Americans want to support Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, they should donate to an organization like the Red Cross—not Big Labor and its affiliates."
The Texas Organizing Project, which did not respond to request for comment regarding how fundraising will be split between humanitarian and organizing aid, has benefitted from hundreds of thousands of dollars from union contributions. It has received more than $1.7 million from labor unions since 2014.
SEIU has been the group's largest union sponsor, donating $1.17 million, according to federal labor filings. The group has also received $200,000 from the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest union; $150,000 from the American Federation of Teachers; $110,000 from the CWA; $50,000 from the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees; $10,000 from the National Education Association, and $5,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers. The unions disclosed that more than 62 percent of those donations went to "political activities," while just 31 percent went to "representational activities." The CWA donation was filed under "contributions, gifts, and grants."
Update: Texas Organizing Project Education Fund Executive Director Michelle Tremillo said that "100 percent of the money raised into this fund will be spent directly on ensuring low income and people of color are not forgotten in the relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts," in a statement released Wednesday night. The group has yet to decide on exactly how the fund will be distributed, but said the fund's expenditures "will range from personal hygiene items to legal aid and advocacy." The exact budgetary strategy will not become apparent "until after the floods recede" and pledged the group would be transparent with its expenditures.
"Every penny given to this fund will be spent on making the communities impacted by Harvey whole again," she said. "In an ideal world, a fund to organize low-income communities of color would not be needed, but this is the reality we live in."
Organize Texas Communications Director Mary Moreno, whose Houston residence avoided flood damage, said that the relief fund was established Monday evening and that the group "never meant" to imply that money would be used for union organizing or political advocacy. They also want to ensure poorer communities are more visible in recovery efforts.
"It's our experience after natural disasters that low income neighborhoods don't get attention," Moreno said.
She pointed to the group's effort in the aftermath of Tax Day flood in 2016 when it staged protests against landlords who attempted to charge rent for flooded, uninhabitable apartments as the type of relief offered by the group.
"We helped people make sure they weren't charged and that their landlords made proper repairs, so they didn't have to live in apartments with mold or flood damage, " she said. "We advocate, but by organizing the community to put pressure on landlords or government agencies or anybody involved in the recovery to serve all neighborhoods."