With his suit jacket long gone, Rep. Greg Casar rolled up his sleeve and took a seat on the House steps. It had been hours since his last sip of water, and it was time for a team of nurses to check his vital signs.
The congressman staged a thirst strike outside the Capitol on Tuesday, livestreaming his medical checkups as he called for federal heat protections for workers, including water breaks.
“It’s challenging and it’s hot, but it’s not as hot as it is in Texas,” Casar said in an interview.
The Texas Democrat pointed to a recent heat wave that brought triple-digit temperatures to his home state. Workers need water breaks now more than ever, he said.
“If things were working the way they should, then we wouldn’t have had multiple workers die in Texas of heat exhaustion just in this month alone,” he said.
Casar, who represents parts of San Antonio and Austin, denounced a state law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June that will overturn some local ordinances, including ones that require water breaks for workers. Dubbed the “Death Star bill” by both opponents and supporters, the law prompted Casar to call for more action at the federal level.
“In the past, during the civil rights era, when governors in the South did terrible things, people of conscience in D.C. stepped up and did the right thing. And I think we’re called upon in this moment to do the same to pass national heat protections to give everybody the right to water,” Casar said.
Casar wants the Biden administration to move quickly to implement heat standards under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. More than 100 members of Congress joined him this week in signing a letter addressed to acting Labor Secretary Julie Su.
“The crisis demands immediate action if we are to accomplish our shared goals of saving lives and prioritizing worker safety and dignity,” they wrote. “We were pleased to see that … OSHA has made progress on the development of a heat standard by issuing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, and, more recently, initiating a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act Panel Review, two of the steps taken ahead of publishing a proposed rule.”
Casar took his last drink of water Tuesday morning around 10:15 a.m. and vowed not to eat or drink until nurses told him it was no longer safe to abstain.
With temperatures in the mid-80s on Capitol Hill, thunder rumbled and rain threatened to fall. The storm made him think of another time he held a thirst strike, when he pushed for heat protections in 2010 in Austin.
“The rains symbolically came down in the afternoon, and then it became a really hot sauna, showing how important these water breaks would be,” Casar recalled.
Casar also participated in a thirst strike in Dallas in 2015, he said.
A steady stream of Democrats appeared at the thirst strike throughout the day, including Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Reps. Becca Balint of Vermont, Maxwell Alejandro Frost of Florida and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Ritchie Torres of New York. Reps. Al Green and Sylvia R. Garcia of Texas both spoke in the morning, with Garcia recounting a story of working in the fields and getting so overheated her nose bled.
Casar started out the morning in a crisp gray suit but soon removed his jacket and loosened his tie. Activists and union workers rallied around him, including Dolores Huerta, who formed the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez in 1962.
“People flew in from Dallas, from the Rio Grande Valley, from Houston, from San Antonio, from Austin. And that’s what will get me through as much of the day as I can,” Casar said.
He ended the strike around 7 p.m., after nearly nine hours without water. As Casar drained a glass, the crowd around him applauded.
Capitol Hill has long been a magnet for advocates, who come there to chant or wave signs in support of a wide range of causes. Some members of Congress try to channel that energy, skipping traditional news conferences in favor of events that feel more like protests.
Rep. Cori Bush slept on the House steps in 2021 as a federal ban that had protected renters from eviction expired. Wrapped in an orange sleeping bag, she was joined by fellow progressive Democrats, who continued the sit-in for days until the Biden administration answered their calls to impose a new freeze.
More than a dozen Democrats were arrested outside the Supreme Court last year as they protested the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and other lawmakers have engaged in civil disobedience at the Capitol in recent years as they urged action on voting rights legislation.
For Casar, the thirst strike was just another day at work, he said.
“I thought I would be feeling way hungrier or crankier,” Casar said five hours into the strike. “But I feel more hopeful and energized than ever.”
Jim Saksa and Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.