Rep. Greg Casar Leads Thirst Strike at US Capitol to Demand Workplace Heat Protections

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) greets Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association, during a vigil and thirst strike on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on July 25, 2023.

(Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Rep. Greg Casar Leads Thirst Strike at US Capitol to Demand Workplace Heat Protections

"Workplaces should not be death traps, and workers know that," said one campaigner.

Calling on the Biden administration to ensure workers across the United States are protected from the extreme temperatures that scientists say will become increasingly common as long as planet-heating fossil fuel extraction persists, U.S. Rep. Greg Casar joined civil society groups and labor unions in an all-day vigil and "thirst strike" on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Casar and other demonstrators argued that the federal government must step in as Republican leaders in states like Texas are attacking workers' rights amid extreme heatwaves.

The protest—organized by groups including Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, the Texas AFL-CIO, and the United Farm Workers—includes United Farm Workers (UFW) co-founder Dolores Huerta and dozens of other participants who will be standing on the U.S. Capitol steps throughout the day on Tuesday.

The campaigners are giving up access to water, shade, and breaks in solidarity with workers forced to labor in temperatures that reached 100°F or higher 250 times across Casar's home state of Texas last month.

As Casar noted in a statement, the thirst strike is being held a month after Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law that eliminated local water break requirements for workers.

"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," said Casar. "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."

The Texas measure is set to go into effect on September 1, and according to Public Citizenworker health and safety advocate Juley Fulcher, "if Gov. Abbott is allowed to implement this law, he will sign the death warrants for innocent workers across the state."

"To pass and implement a law putting workers in danger in the midst of a record-setting scorching summer should be criminal," said Fulcher. "Workers are dying across the country due to extreme heat. The [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has the ability to act and protect their lives, and we hope the administration moves with haste."

On Monday, Casar led more than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate in writing a letter that called on the Biden administration to establish a federal standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to prevent heat-related work injuries, illnesses, and deaths.

OSHA is working toward releasing a standard, but currently the agency does not require rest breaks for workers, and the lawmakers urged the Biden administration to "mobilize all of the resources... necessary for implementing this standard as soon as possible."

The campaigners at the Capitol on Tuesday called for requirements for employers to provide workers with adequate water, breaks, cooling areas, medical services, and training to identify heat-related illnesses.

"Big corporations and their Republican lackeys are conspiring to strip away rights and protections from working families, all to pad their bottom line," said Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of Indivisible. "It's outrageous that we'd even need to talk about something as basic as a water break on a hot day, but that's what Republicans like Greg Abbott are yanking away."

The thirst strike was held as international scientists at World Weather Attribution released a new study showing that the extreme heat that people across North America and Europe have been facing this summer would have been "virtually impossible" without the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency.

Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, called establishing federal workplace heat protections a "no-brainer" for President Joe Biden.

"Workplaces should not be death traps, and workers know that," said Prakash. "President Biden must stand with the labor community and implement federal workplace heat standards. We're in a climate emergency."

Along with lawmakers and unions representing Texas workers, the families of some workers who have died as a result of heat-related illness and injuries attended the thirst strike and vigil.

"From the deaths of Asuncion Valdivia in 2004 and Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez in 2008, to Florencio Gueta Vargas in 2021 and Efrain Lopez Garcia, who was killed by heat in Florida earlier this month, farm worker families have lost far too many loved ones to deadly temperatures—and to deadly government inaction," said UFW President Teresa Romero. "OSHA must step up now to protect the men, women, and children who do the incredibly hard work of harvesting America's food in truly dangerous temperatures—sacrificing their health and sometimes their lives to keep our nation fed."

"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," she added. "How many more workers will we let heat and callous employers kill before this nation acts?”

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