Texas Guardsmen Move to Unionize, Pointing to Troubled Border Mission

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A Texas Guardsman and a Customs and a Border Patrol agent.
A Texas Guardsman and a Customs and Border Patrol agent discuss the lay of the land April 10, 2018 on the shores of the Rio Grande River in Starr County, Texas. (Texas Military Department photo by Sgt. Mark Otte)

Several Texas National Guard soldiers are moving to unionize amid reports of a troubled border mission ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott that has been plagued by accounts of wage disruptions, rejected hardship requests, alcohol abuse and self harm.

At least six Guardsmen are working with the Texas State Employees Union to try to unionize Guard troops, Military.com has learned. The union has a long track record of lobbying elected officials and filing lawsuits tied to employment rights and wage-related issues on behalf of members.

"We're getting treated like sh--," the soldier leading the unionization effort told Military.com on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. "This is all politically driven. I voted for Abbott. I agree with a lot of his politics, but not when it comes at the expense of the involuntary mobilization for upwards for 12 months. That isn't what we signed up for. We signed on the dotted line, but not for this."

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The soldier hopes unionizing can empower Guardsmen to bring their concerns to elected officials and possibly lobby for legislative efforts they find beneficial down the line. Until now, soldiers have been able to air their grievances to the press only ad hoc. But with a union, troops hope to coordinate more constructive messages.

"These are people who dedicated their lives to serve their country," Will Attig, executive director of the Union Veterans Council, AFL-CIO, told Military.com. "These members clearly felt the need to have a voice. What does that say about the state of affairs over there?"

The move to unionize comes after the Department of Justice said in a court filing in January that the federal law banning service members from forming unions does not prohibit Guardsmen on state orders.

Guardsmen spend the bulk of their service on state orders and are effectively state employees and not eligible for any federal benefits typically associated with active-duty service. They cannot claim disability from the Department of Veterans Affairs if injured. On state orders, Guardsmen are often paid less than when they are on federal orders -- typically associated with domestic missions when the president has declared a national emergency, such as the pandemic, and missions abroad.

It could be a flashpoint for the rights of service members in the National Guard, whom governors have relied on heavily since the beginning of the pandemic for a portfolio of domestic undertakings, while those troops also juggle their federal obligations for missions overseas.

For months, soldiers have been raising the alarm to most media outlets that Operation Lone Star, Texas' border mission, has been plagued with issues since it began a year ago. Military.com reported more than 1,000 troops have faced pay issues, some being shortchanged -- often by thousands of dollars -- and leaving families struggling. Meanwhile, many soldiers are being forced to stay on the mission, puting their families' financial security in peril, given they often make much more in their civilian jobs and their Guard paychecks have gone missing.

Meanwhile, there have been multiple instances of suicide attempts, according to documents reviewed by Military.com. An investigation by Army Times found at least four soldiers connected to the mission have died by suicide.

The mission has also been marred with numerous behavioral issues. Earlier this month, a soldier was pulled over by police at 2 a.m. near the border in Texas for passing a stop sign, according to an incident report obtained by Military.com. During a search of his vehicle, authorities found open alcohol containers and drugs, as well as two minors. Another soldier recently pulled a gun on a border agent at a bar in an apparent fight over a woman. He eventually dropped the gun when he was startled by the arrival of police.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Texas Denying Most Guard Troops at Border Chance to Help Families Suffering Hardships at Home

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