Hunter Schuler doesn't plan to make a career out of the military. Like many Guardsmen, he enlisted to serve in a part-time role to get the best of both worlds: He was able to serve his country and build his civilian career at the same time with access to robust benefits.
It's an attractive offer that plays a key role in maintaining the National Guard -- a critical player in the Pentagon's combat power abroad and humanitarian efforts at home.
Schuler, in his 10th year of service, is a medic with the rank of specialist in the Texas National Guard. The junior enlisted soldier, who otherwise had a very conventional part-time role in the Guard, is the first service member in decades, perhaps ever, to sign onto a union. He’s challenging senior Guard leaders who outrank him many times over.
"The idea started as a joke," Schuler told Military.com. "But now we have a real opportunity to make the lives of soldiers better." For his civilian job, Schuler works as a deputy clerk for the Supreme Court of Texas. He recently earned a master's degree in statistics and applied to a statistics doctorate program at Southern Methodist University.
Schuler, along with a handful of other enlisted troops and officers across the Texas Army and Air National Guard, became members of the Texas State Employees Union in February. Union leaders have declined to publicize the specific number of members.
It's a radical move among military personnel, with decades of federal law seemingly prohibiting such organizing. It stunned some Guard leaders in other states and prompted the Texas Military Department to lash out, calling organizers "agitators."
In January, the Justice Department said in a court filing that the law forbidding troops from unionizing does not apply to Guardsmen on state orders.
That decision came on the heels of extensive pandemic-response missions that spurred a complaint from several public labor unions in Connecticut, including police and firefighters, arguing the Guard has a right to unionize and advocate for themselves, given how often governors are relying on them.
Schuler and his allies in the Texas Guard who aligned with the Texas State Employees Union are in the midst of bolstering their ranks, pitching the union to other soldiers and airmen, who may be skeptical.
The unionization effort follows a year of Gov. Greg Abbott's scandal-marred border mission, Operation Lone Star. Guardsmen have flooded social media and contacted reporters with grievances about poor living conditions, pay that is sometimes months behind, and the rapid mobilization of 10,000 troops, costing some their livelihoods and sinking their civilian jobs.
Schuler and dozens of other soldiers interviewed by Military.com in recent months see Abbott's frequent appearances on Fox News touting the mission as political window dressing for his reelection bid. There have been a handful of volunteers deployed to the border for decades, but it's unclear why Abbott needed to mobilize 10,000 of his troops on such short notice -- exactly a year before the Texas primaries, where he faced his first serious political challenge in years.
Even in cases of war, troops are often given several months' notice before deployment. In this case, the Guardsmen are on state orders, which are not typically used for long-term missions. Under state orders, troops are under the control of the governor. In that status, they are effectively state employees -- paid by the state and not falling under Defense Department rules. Guardsmen on state orders are often paid less and do not accrue any benefits associated with active duty, such as the GI Bill or VA home loan eligibility.
For long-term missions, such as the responses to the pandemic and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Guardsmen are typically activated under Title 32 orders -- granting them full federal pay and benefits, though they remain under the command of the governors of the states they serve. They are not entitled to federal legal protection against civilian employer retaliation and home foreclosure, protections that those on federal orders enjoy.
While Operation Lone Star is underway, there is a separate federally funded Guard mission on the border comprising about 2,000 troops who are effectively conducting the same mission but are being paid more and accruing benefits.
"Even if Abbott ends the mission tomorrow, he can start it again in the next election," Schuler said. "I may not be serving five years, but I know there will be soldiers just like me who are facing the same problems I am now. Hopefully by unionizing, at least future governors will know if they push soldiers too far, they'll just unionize and create a public policy or perceptive nightmare."
But the Texas Military Department is stressing to troops that state law prohibits public employees -- in this case, Guardsmen -- from collective bargaining and strikes.
"Servicemembers should not be misled by union agitators into believing that Texas law allows them to engage in collective bargaining, it does not," a statement from the Texas Military Department said in February.
But that warning is a straw man, union organizers say. They are aware of Texas laws curtailing the ability to bargain and strike, which isn't the Guardsmen's goal.
Schuler sees it as an intimidation tactic.
"It is every soldier's legal right to join this union if they want to," he said. "I think they're trying to confuse soldiers. We know we can't collectively bargain, and we aren't looking to strike. I think they conflate unionizing with that and [are] taking advantage of potential lack of knowledge among soldiers."
The union aims for short-term goals such as establishing a cordial relationship with Texas Guard leadership and long-term goals like advocating for troop-friendly legislation. One bill for which Schuler said he would advocate would require that a governor seek the consent of the Texas Legislature for any involuntary state missions that exceed 30 days, an idea he hopes would be appealing to fiscal conservatives.
The tipping point for Schuler was the treatment of soldiers on the border mission. Troops usually get around four days of leave a month and are limited to a strict radius in which they are allowed to travel. Many troops' homes are outside that radius -- or they have to spend half their leave just on the travel. Discussions on leave and how far Guardsmen are allowed to travel have been consistent points of contention between senior leaders, according to recorded phone calls and meetings obtained by Military.com.
The issues culminated in numerous instances of self harm, health and disciplinary issues among soldiers, many of which are related to heavy drinking among idle service members -- with bar fights and DUIs being commonplace among the rank and file.
There have also been at least four reported suicides, as well as other instances of self harm, according to National Guard documents provided to Military.com. But Texas Guard officials have been skeptical about the mission's impact on the mental health of its force.
"Suicides among the nation have risen, and we are part of the general population," Col. Rita Holton, a spokesperson for the Texas National Guard, told Military.com in a January interview. "We've had suicides in our organization; there are suicides in every organization. Unless the individual left a note and said, 'I'm going to kill myself because I'm serving on this mission,' there's no way anyone can say it's due to their service on the mission."
The possibility of military unionization started in the 1970s, after several European troops began organizing and as the U.S. Defense Department shifted to an all-volunteer force following several major wars. That prompted fears from career service members their pay and benefits would be cut as Congress sought to trim military spending, according to Jennifer Mittelstadt, professor of history at Rutgers University.
But the desire to establish military unions never got off the ground after near universal backlash from Congress, Pentagon leaders and even numerous editorials from major news outlets balking at the idea.
But an influx of high-profile union effort talks, including among Capitol Hill staff and Apple store and Starbucks employees, as well as strikes among workers at Kellogg's and John Deere, labor issues are getting attention not seen in decades. That, combined with governors increasingly leaning on Guardsmen to fill in state labor gaps at hospitals and schools, could be a flashpoint for troops to organize.
"The National Guard is pressed to the wall; they're being called into all kinds of new services. That leads to questions over whether they will be treated and compensated," Mittelstadt told Military.com. "At the same time, we're seeing a huge swell of labor union organizing and activism -- more than there probably has been in 40 years. Some public unions, like teachers and police, are rapidly organizing. To me, this seems like a good time for the Texas Guard to get involved and organized."
So far, Texas troops who have unionized have not been retaliated against. Schuler said he hopes to build a good relationship with Guard leaders in Texas.
"I hope they're willing to have serious discussions about living conditions and working conditions," he said. "Despite being cast as agitators, that's the opposite of what we want. We aren't the enemy; we're just soldiers who want something better."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.