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Texas Congressman Greg Casar holds hunger and thirst strike to call for federal workplace heat standard

Congressman Greg Casar, a Democrat from Texas, spent Tuesday participating in an all-day hunger and thirst strike and vigil outside the U.S. Capitol, along with other activists.

The freshman representative said he held the strike to draw attention to the need for a federal workplace heat standard, including protections for rest and water breaks. It comes as much of the U.S. has experienced record-breaking heat this summer.

"We need federal protections from the Biden administration as soon as we can get them, especially for next summer, which we know could be even hotter than this one," Casar, who represents parts of San Antonio and Austin, told CBS News.

"I grew up in Texas. I know it's hot, but it hasn't usually been this hot. So the climate crisis is getting worse, workers aren't being paid a living wage and they're being put out there to work in the heat sometimes to get sick and die," he said.

Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas) talks to supporters outside the U.S. Capitol during his hunger and thirst strike
Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, talks to supporters during the sixth hour of a thirst strike outside the U.S. Capitol, July 25, 2023. JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS

Among those joining Casar on Tuesday were the family members who lost a loved one on the job in Texas. A picture frame honoring the life of Roendy Granillo, a 25-year old construction worker who died in 2015 due to heat stroke, was set up on the House steps, surrounded by candles. Granillo's family lobbied the Dallas City Council after his death to adopt an ordinance requiring manual laborers get breaks.

Tuesday's demonstration comes just weeks before a new law in Texas takes effect. The legislation, House Bill 2127, blocks cities and counties from enacting certain local ordinances, and a press release from Casar's office said the law will eliminate protections against extreme heat, like ordinances in Austin and Dallas that require water breaks for workers.

"Our governor (Greg Abbott) should be helping everyday workers and instead what he's chosen to do is to sign a law this month taking people's rights to a water break on the job away from them," Casar said. "And that is just cruel. It's wrong. And we know we have to overturn that decision. And so that's why we're calling on the president to accelerate a federal rule to protect all Americans from the heat while at work."

CBS News has reached out to Gov. Abbott for comment. In a statement provided to CBS Austin in June, after HB 2127 was signed, Abbott's office said: "Ensuring the safety of Texans is a top priority as our state experiences high summer heat. This bill is consistent with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) standards regarding safe work practices and will not inhibit people from taking water breaks."

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, and fellow Democratic Reps. Katie Porter, of California, and Sylvia Garcia, of Texas, also spoke at Tuesday's gathering on the Capitol steps, and greeted activists who included the legendary labor leader Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union.

Vigil and Thirst Strike for Workers' Rights
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., greets Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union, during a vigil and thirst strike for workers' rights at the U.S. Capitol on July 25, 2023. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, is at left. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Casar and over a hundred other members of Congress addressed the Biden administration in a letter Monday, urging it to implement an Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard "as soon as possible."

Casar said he received a call from Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su on Tuesday afternoon during the strike.

"It was really encouraging to get her support and to know that we have an administration that is pulling in the same direction as us, saying that workers should have more rights in the 21st century," he said. "And we know that there's big money corporate lobbying trying to stop the federal government from protecting workers in the heat… but we believe that our people power can beat their lobbying power, and that's the point of this vigil and thirst strike."

The temperature in D.C. on Tuesday was in the 80s. Casar, who got hourly checkups from a nurse, said he intended to continue the strike "all day" or until nurses told him to stop.

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