The Man Building the Bridge Between Labor Rights and Criminal Justice Reform

One of the most promis­ing trends in crim­i­nal jus­tice reform in recent years has been the rise of the pro­gres­sive dis­trict attor­ney. From Philadel­phia to San Fran­cis­co, reform can­di­dates have won con­trol of DA’s offices with an agen­da of rolling back the harsh excess­es of the ​“tough on crime” era. Now, a new­ly elect­ed pro­gres­sive DA in Austin, Texas is bring­ing some­thing to his posi­tion that none of his coun­ter­parts have before: deep ties to the labor movement. 

Ear­li­er this month, Jose Garza over­whelm­ing­ly defeat­ed a Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent, and then a Repub­li­can chal­lenger, to become the top pros­e­cu­tor in Travis Coun­ty, Texas. Garza, a native of Lare­do, made his name in Austin by lead­ing the Work­ers Defense Project, a pow­er­ful and well-regard­ed work­er cen­ter that has won sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ries for low-wage work­ers in Texas, includ­ing bet­ter wages, work­place safe­ty and pro­tec­tions for immi­grants. After tak­ing over WDP in 2016 from its founder, Cristi­na Tzintzun Ramirez (who ran unsuc­cess­ful­ly to become the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate can­di­date in Texas this year), he helped get a paid sick leave law passed in Austin, the first in any city in Texas. His move straight from a grass­roots labor group into an elect­ed DA posi­tion makes him a unique fig­ure in the Amer­i­can social jus­tice movement. 

For Garza, though, his new job feels like a cul­mi­na­tion of a career spent prod­ding dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions towards right­eous­ness. After col­lege at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas and law school in DC, he took an intern­ship with the juve­nile divi­sion of a state’s attor­ney in Mary­land. ​“I was assigned to this pros­e­cu­tor straight out of cen­tral cast­ing. She had a giant por­trait of Ronald Rea­gan in her office, and she told me that I was gonna love my intern­ship there because I’d get to wear the white hat every day,” he remem­bers. His first case involved a sin­gle father who had called the police on his son for pos­ses­sion of mar­i­jua­na, in a des­per­ate attempt to set the young man straight. Lat­er, the father thanked pros­e­cu­tors, and told them he want­ed to drop the case — only to be told that it was no longer his case to drop. ​“That was the moment it became clear to me that I was going to come back to Texas and become a pub­lic defender.” 

As a pub­lic defend­er, he quick­ly learned the dark real­i­ties under­ly­ing the sys­tem. ​“There was not a sin­gle client I had who we as a soci­ety had not failed,” he says. ​“When we fail peo­ple in that way, our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is the rug we sweep them under, so we don’t have to face our own failures.” 

He moved on to a legal posi­tion in the Oba­ma administration’s Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, an up-close and per­son­al les­son in the extent to which labor rights are sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly attacked by busi­ness inter­ests. Five years of breath­ing the rar­efied air of Wash­ing­ton, DC, work­ing on labor issues on the fed­er­al lev­el, taught him that ​“the oppor­tu­ni­ties for progress were hap­pen­ing at the local lev­el.” As the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion came to a close, his gaze turned back towards Texas. He con­sid­ered Work­ers Defense Project — found­ed in 2002 and already nation­al­ly promi­nent for its suc­cess­es — to be the state’s most effec­tive orga­ni­za­tion push­ing labor and immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy changes. Garza became its exec­u­tive direc­tor in August of 2016, and over the next sev­er­al years con­tin­ued to notch vic­to­ries in cities across the state, win­ning laws that raised work­ing stan­dards in the con­struc­tion indus­try and helped pro­tect immi­grants from deportation.

Garza speaks at a 2019 protest of immigrant detention centers in Texas.

For the entire­ty of the Trump years, Garza has sat at the cen­ter of a loose pro­gres­sive coali­tion in Texas, which draws togeth­er orga­nized labor, civ­il and immi­grants rights groups, and left­ist polit­i­cal groups, all qui­et­ly doing the grass­roots work of pulling a his­tor­i­cal­ly reac­tionary state into the future. The fact that Texas is now thought of as a plau­si­ble swing state dur­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycles can be traced back in large part to years of orga­niz­ing by this loose-knit web of advo­cates. For Garza, suc­cess in elec­toral pol­i­tics comes only as a result of this issue-based orga­niz­ing, and nev­er vice versa. 

“What we know in the state of Texas is that his­tor­i­cal­ly, peo­ple don’t vote here. Because when they do, they don’t see any mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence in their lives,” he says. ​“What we have found is that when you talk to peo­ple about the issues, when you show them that they can win on the issues, those wins build on themselves.” 

This fun­da­men­tal approach is famil­iar to labor orga­niz­ers, but can be alien to pro­fes­sion­al polit­i­cal func­tionar­ies who tend to view all pol­i­cy suc­cess­es as mere­ly instru­men­tal to elec­toral wins. When Garza decid­ed to run for DA, labor unions who had worked with him while he was at Work­ers Defense Project knew that he would bring that orga­niz­ing approach with him into office. 

One of the unions that endorsed his cam­paign was Local 520 of the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers, whose 1,500 mem­bers work on large com­mer­cial and indus­tri­al projects. Ryan Pol­lock, the union’s lead orga­niz­er, got to know Garza when he was fight­ing along­side them for paid sick leave in Austin. (Among the accom­plish­ments of Work­ers Defense Project is that it’s wide­ly praised by local unions, where­as many work­er cen­ters face a touchy rela­tion­ship with unions who wor­ry about any pow­er being won on behalf of non-union work­ers.) ​“He’s a true work­ing-class hero. That’s what we need in Austin, instead of this woke lib­er­al bull­shit,” Pol­lock says. ​“We’ve seen our city grow and flour­ish, and all this wealth com­ing in. The res­i­dents that live here and built that wealth, they’re get­ting edged out and exploit­ed. We see some­body who under­stands where the work­ing peo­ple of Austin are com­ing from, in a posi­tion like that, as a big win in this bat­tle for our city.” 

Garza’s plat­form in the DA’s race includ­ed a slew of fun­da­men­tal reforms: end­ing pros­e­cu­tions for minor drug pos­ses­sion, pur­su­ing restora­tive jus­tice pro­grams, crack­ing down on police mis­con­duct, a blan­ket ban on seek­ing the death penal­ty, and oth­er mea­sures often sought by pro­gres­sive DAs across the coun­try. But when you ask his sup­port­ers where his expe­ri­ence with labor rights and eco­nom­ic jus­tice will be most valu­able, they tend to zero in on the issue of end­ing cash bail — anoth­er one of Garza’s plat­form planks. 

“We know he’s going to be pri­or­i­tiz­ing issues like bail reform, that have an incred­i­bly detri­men­tal effect on work­ing folks in par­tic­u­lar,” says Mimi Marziani, the pres­i­dent of the Texas Civ­il Rights Project and the leader of Garza’s tran­si­tion team. ​“Because of the deep reliance on cash bail, you lit­er­al­ly have a sit­u­a­tion where two peo­ple can be accused of the very same crime — but just because one per­son has means and the oth­er doesn’t, one per­son goes back to their fam­i­ly, goes back to their job, goes back to their life.” Cash bail is per­haps the clear­est exam­ple of the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of pover­ty, and the best demon­stra­tion of the fact that the line between ​“labor issues” and ​“crim­i­nal jus­tice issues” dis­solves when you look close­ly enough. If you can’t post bail, after all, you’re like­ly to lose your job.

“For hun­dreds of years in this coun­try, we have been told that what ​‘pub­lic safe­ty’ is is lock­ing up as many work­ing-class peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or as we can,” Garza says. ​“We know that’s a lie. What pub­lic safe­ty is is a good job. What pub­lic safe­ty is is access to health care, and good schools to send our chil­dren. What pub­lic safe­ty is is sta­bil­i­ty.” It is a sim­ple way of look­ing at the issue, but one that is exact­ly back­wards from the stan­dard Amer­i­can approach. Instead of assum­ing that indi­vid­u­als — ​”crim­i­nals” — cause insta­bil­i­ty, Garza accepts that the oppo­site is true. Insta­bil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ties and indi­vid­ual lives, he says, pro­duces crime. Ensur­ing peo­ple have good jobs and safe work­ing con­di­tions and fair pay and pro­tec­tion from state harass­ment, there­fore, are first order pub­lic safe­ty goals. In this sense, Garza has a per­fect resume to become dis­trict attorney. 

For the pro­gres­sive groups in Texas like Work­ers Defense Project that see deep orga­niz­ing as the long path to progress, seed­ing mem­bers of their ranks into elect­ed posi­tions is a nat­ur­al step. Garza and his allies are con­fi­dent that he can make his agen­da a real­i­ty in Travis Coun­ty. But the larg­er project of trans­form­ing the entire (still red) state will be a long, hard path — one that now falls to a move­ment that has spent the past four years in a pitched bat­tle against a gov­er­nor seek­ing to sup­press the vote, and a White House pur­su­ing vin­dic­tive poli­cies against immigrants. 

“The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has both ener­gized and exhaust­ed our social jus­tice move­ment,” says Mimi Marziani. ​“But I think that it has awak­ened a lot of peo­ple to issues that came long before Trump… and it has cre­at­ed con­di­tions where we can have con­ver­sa­tions about pol­i­cy that did not exist five years ago.” 

The fact that a per­son like Jose Garza can now sweep into pow­er as a top law enforce­ment offi­cial is a prod­uct of that awak­en­ing. He cites, as his own moti­va­tion, both a sense of dis­ap­point­ment in where Austin was at the end of the Trump years, and a sense of hope about the type of change that lay wait­ing to hap­pen there. 

“The injus­tice that work­ing peo­ple feel on the job when they can’t orga­nize for bet­ter wages and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions is the same injus­tice that com­mu­ni­ties of col­or feel on their streets,” Garza says. ​“It all flows from the same imbal­anced pow­er struc­ture.” His job titles keep chang­ing. But the job itself remains the same. 

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