When it comes to the Texas economy, it’s hard to avoid the state’s self-declared reputation as a “miracle.”
What this translates to is that the state has championed itself as a refuge for corporations fleeing the taxes and regulation present in other states. Indeed, many companies have made dramatic exits to cities like Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Of course, some of these stories are far less spectacular than they seem — often just amounting to the moving of particular operations, or wealthy CEOs' shifting homes. This trend is also in character with global capitalism’s constant movement since the 1950s to where companies can get incentives and where labor protections are low. Silicon Valley companies have been especially vocal and favored Austin in their moves. Houston has also sought to attract these companies, a new home to some parts of Google’s operations and to financial technologies (“FinTech”) like Bill.com.
But more than just the promise of a free-market haven is real public incentives and dollars put towards attracting capital. The statewide Texas Enterprise Fund as well as Chapter 380/381 (city/county) agreements have been estimated to give out $1.76 billion annually. Yet the real benefits of these moves have yet to be seen. Research demonstrates that across the state, the expense doled out does not match up to the reward, with far less direct jobs created locally than promised and with even fewer going to local companies.
Houston also continues to welcome a steady stream of relocating oil, gas, and energy companies — a long-time staple of the region, with deadly results for its residents. One interviewee called the city “at its core, a petro-chemical state,” which is in part tied to its port location and ability to move supply across the Gulf Coast. The assumed dependence of the economy is especially challenging when it comes to not just labor organizing, but also to the ways fossil fuel money supports philanthropy regionally.
In reality, growing health, retail, logistics and other sectors employ far more people than oil and gas.
The economy has shifted tremendously since the 1970s peaks of oil and gas power locally. Yet fossil fuel company propaganda and power is significant — shown in the ways wind power was falsely blamed for the collapse of electricity during the 2021 deadly freeze.
Profiting from public incentives
Incentives flow as well to attract larger developers, who have driven speculative commercial and residential construction tied to the steady stream of wealthy new companies. Companies are able to broker deals that allow them to grab land that is public, as well operate with few obligations — even to the safety of their workforce. One of the great ironies of Houston capitalism is that for a supposed free-market haven, real estate and construction company power really magnified dramatically after Hurricane Harvey, siphoning federal disaster investment and relying heavily on public dollars.
Alongside real estate companies is a construction industry that, while profiting from mega “sweetheart deals” — like the one Rice Management Company secured in the Third Ward, is itself fissured and subcontracted. The decentralized structure means that, as one organizer shared, “most workers are working for smaller employers with limited capital, which pushes responsibility to the smallest contractor who has least ability to pay for things that good employer needs to provide.” Not coincidentally, major estate and construction companies are the largest donors to Texas’ dominant Republican party — further shielding them from accountability while boosting their profit at taxpayers’ expense.
As one interviewee shared, “The city likes to create tax havens and give incentives that they say boost the economy, but these only really help the top 1% of developers and executives. It doesn't really help workers.”
Corporate influence on environmental regulations
“In Texas, it’s easier to have the big truck, the big house, those consumer comforts. But now with climate change we are starting to see the cost of all that,” one organizer explained. The price of the “everything is bigger in Texas” story, of the fact that the massive region is also home to more than a third of the country’s oil and gas companies, of a global port — all tied to corporate power — is layers of toxins permeating water, air, and earth. This lung-crushing burden falls on BIPOC neighborhoods like the Fifth Ward, which has at least two cancer clusters affecting children and adults.
Yet corporations, in part exerting influence at the state over regulation, have curbed the ability to mitigate or stop pollution. One interviewee shared, “We have so many chemicals in our air, and we don't have any right to know what has been released during the chemical spill.”
A birthplace of the environmental justice movement
Activists like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services have linked Houston to a larger “cancer alley” of petrochemical manufacturing in Louisiana, as the end-point for attempted tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL, and as a fundamental link to a global climate crisis. Towns like Manchester and Harrisburg — nearly all low-income BIPOC communities — have 22% higher risks of cancer than neighboring areas. There, high schools are built within a quarter-mile of three petrochemical plants, nearly 160,000 barrels a day of gasoline are produced in single plants, and tens of thousands of vehicles pass per day tied to the ports.
Yet, as much as Houston (and Texas) represents the power of petro-chemical and other corporations, it is also in many ways a birthplace of the environmental justice movement. In 1979, famed researcher Dr. Robert Bullard first helped sue the government for environmental racism in its attempt to site a massive landfill on Houston suburb that was 82% Black. At the heart of this crisis, according to one lifetime resident and organizer, is an “individualistic survival of the fittest mentality.” Events like the deep freeze made clear why some ”white folks have the guns and bunker; they have no purpose, no intention in helping anyone. The government is set up that way — it provides no support, and you have to fight to survive.”
Parents, workers, and shaping public investment
As housing and commercial development continues to balloon and spread, so too does public investment. School construction in particular has dramatically increased in Houston’s expanding suburbs to serve the growing region. Labor and community organizations found common ground realizing that while multi-billion dollar contracts were being doled out to school developers, communities benefited little. Students and teachers were struggling to come up with resources in campuses, and workers doing the building were getting underpaid or not paid at all.
“A lot of workers have students going to same schools [being built or expanded] and see the cycle of poverty — parents don’t get paid what they deserve, students don’t get what they need to succeed,” one organizer shared.
Yet, these funds concern public taxpayer money, and a labor-community coalition has challenged what one organizer described as a “misuse of tax dollars and use of irresponsible contracts by a public entity.” Rallying community allies, including leveraging the role of parent-workers, organizations like International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) have been able to fight for mandated wages in the district to ensure some kind of living wage and other protections.
In the suburb of Sheldon, companies like Allenko Finishes participated in building the $146 million, 580,000 square foot C.E. King High School complex and cut corners by skirting prevailing wage and other laws. Two workers filed a claim against Allenko Finishes showing how their employers had each performing daily work as painters yet only paid them $12 instead of the $15.75 mandated wage. In one year alone, this meant $11,000 in stolen wages.
IUPAT District Council 88 helped organize both workers and parents to pressure the Sheldon Independent School District (ISD). Sheldon ISD were not receptive at first, even trying to stop workers from speaking at public board meetings. Fear kept many workers from filing claims, but the sustained community and labor pressure eventually brought a $2 wage increase across the board in Allenko Finishes’s laborer rate — affecting many more than the two workers in the suit and inspiring new collective action.