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Texas Rep. Greg Casar, Labor Icon Dolores Huerta Among Thirst Strikers Calling For Heat Protections For Outdoor Workers

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93-year-old labor legend and United Farm Workers (UFW) cofounder Dolores Huerta was among “thirst strikers” at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, withholding from water all day to highlight the urgent need to enact federal heat protections for outdoor workers like essential farmworkers. Texas Rep. Greg Casar led the strike, tweeting a picture of himself having one last sip of water before joining fellow strikers and advocates on the Capitol steps. Huerta, Casar, and strikers withheld from water for hours as the local weather hit a high of 89F.

Outside, thirst strikers and organizations including Indivisible, Texas AFL-CIO, La Unión del Pueblo Entero, and UFW joined lawmakers including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Chuy García, and Rep. Sylvia Garcia to push the need for the Labor Department to move as quickly as possible on a federal heat standard to combat the effects of the extreme heat facing outdoor workers like agricultural workers, construction workers, and other workers. Currently, no such policy is in place.

“With rising heat temperatures, we’re urging @OSHA_DOL to implement federal rest break regulations,” Rep. Sylvia Garcia tweeted. “I will never stop fighting until all workers are protected.”

Casar’s office said he was withholding from drinking water and breaks, which along with shade and prevention training, make up the core basics of outdoor worker protections recommended by experts and advocates. Yet these lifesaving protections have been targeted by anti-immigrant extremists like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed law that will overturn local ordinances establishing protections for outdoor workers. Huerta said Abbott should remember these are the essential workers “who keep us fed.”

“For the governor to do this action, I don’t think there’s any way he can possibly justify what he has done,” Huerta said in her remarks. “This is such a cruel thing. His whole administration now is based on cruelty and how many more people he can punish.”

Jasmine Granillo was among affected individuals who took part in the thirst strike. She was just 11 when her big brother, Roendy, died from heat stroke after he was denied a break during his construction job in 2015. Their dad, Gustavo, took part in a thirst strike at the time to urge Dallas officials to act on heat protections. It worked. “By the end of the year, Dallas passed an ordinance mandating that construction laborers receive a 10-minute rest break every four hours, a policy similar to one passed by Austin five years prior,” Texas Observer reports.

“It’s a basic human right for every worker to get a water break when they need to,” Granillo told the outlet. “It saves their lives. My brother would still be here if he just had a water break. It’s that simple.”

We know these policies work: in one heat prevention program in Waco, Texas, experts “lowered the rate of heat-related illnesses among Waco’s municipal workers from 27 per 1,000 people in 2009 to zero in 2016 and 2017,” Houston Public Radio reported in 2021. But this month, “in the hottest month in Texas history,” lawmakers like Abbott “stripped workers’ right to a water break away,” Casar said. Some in the crowd around Casar booed and yelled “shame on him.” This is in fact the hottest summer on record, but farmworkers, construction workers, and others have no choice but to work outside.

“I’m on thirst strike today because families across Texas and across America deserve dignity on the job. But Greg Abbott doesn’t think so,” Casar said in remarks reported by Common Dreams. “The Biden administration must step in, override Abbott, and ensure heat protections for all Americans in all industries. Our government should work for working people, not for greedy corporations that exploit their workers and fill Abbott’s campaign coffers.”

Casar was also among the more than 110 federal lawmakers to pen a letter urging the Biden administration “to encourage the fastest possible implementation of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace heat standard,” calling extreme heat “a matter of life and death for many workers and their families across the United States.”

This is not hyperbole: in just the past couple weeks alone, two farmworkers in Florida and a farmworker in Arizona have died after working in the heat. In Arizona, the temperature was already in the 90s when Dario Mendoza collapsed. All three workers were under the age of 30. Mendoza was just 26. “Through July 22, Yuma had experienced a stretch of 11 days in a row with temperatures at or above 110 degrees, the fourth longest stretch on record,” Arizona Republic reported.

“Heat related illnesses are easily preventable,” a Texas-based National Nurses United member said. “I KNOW we can reduce the heat related illnesses we see.” Quiana Washington, an airport worker also from Texas, said she was in the DC heat “fighting for what’s right,” UFW shared in a tweet. “We don’t get the water breaks that we deserve, how can we do our jobs? We should not have to beg.”

Casar ended his thirst strike after nine hours, but the work continues. In 2023 – again, the hottest year on record – we have to fight for workers to be able to drink water and get the rest breaks they need to do their jobs safely.

“OSHA must take action immediately to implement the permanent nationwide heat rules which have already been in development for years. Every day we wait puts more farm worker lives at risk,” he said according to Common Dreams. “How many more workers will we let heat and callous employers kill before this nation acts?” Supporters can sign the UFW petition urging the Labor Department to quickly implement heat rules, including water, rest, and paid breaks. “The men, women and children working in our fields can’t wait,” the petition said. Click here to read more about the UFW petition and sign.