NEW ORLEANS — Each year the AFL-CIO celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a different city. This year, it was symbolic that the labor federation chose to hold the event here, with about 1,000 union members from around the country in attendance.
Devastated by Katrina in 2005, three years later New Orleans is still struggling to recover due to the lack of federal response to the disaster, Mayor Ray Nagin told the gathering.
Right after the storm, unlike the Bush administration, the AFL-CIO embarked on a program to help rebuild the city through volunteer work and investment in housing and the infrastructure. The federation set up a housing trust which spent three-quarters of a billion dollars to provide affordable housing for city residents.
The Jan. 15-19 King Day conference continued this hands-on theme. It started with two days of community service on projects to benefit people in working class neighborhoods.
As the buses took us to the work projects, I was appalled by the fact that three years after Katrina, FEMA “blue roofs” were still quite visible. “Blue roofs” are the blue tarps that were put over roofs after the storm. Hailing from Texas, I am very familiar with this sight in Houston and Galveston since we have suffered similar neglect — wrecked houses still not repaired and windows remaining blown out of major office buildings.
I was assigned to two days of projects in community centers, including the Cutoff Community Center in Algiers, also known as the Lower Coast Algiers Community Center, and the Willie Hall Community Center near City Park. At the Willie Hall Center we cleared three baseball diamonds for the benefit of the neighborhood youth. The baseball diamonds had been shut down since Katrina.
The manager of the Cutoff Community Center, who has been faithfully performing her duties there for 31 years, said the center had survived the storm intact but could not withstand the devastation delivered upon it by FEMA. Following the storm FEMA commandeered the facility, kicked in the doors and trashed the facility, she said. When they left, they made no effort to restore the center, which is the anchor of the neighborhood, serving160 children every day.
About 100 union members from around the country participated in this work project along with members from New Orleans. Unions represented included AFSCME, IBEW, USW, UAW, UFCW, UMWA and AFT.
About 600 labor activists participated in the King Day work projects.
Many unionists were exhilarated over the election of Barack Obama and discussions of this permeated the conference. One participant stated, “We must get behind Obama” while another retorted, “We must get behind Obama and get in front of him.” Conference speakers echoed this theme that the wealthy will be pressuring Obama to further their agenda and working people need to be vocal in representing their interests.
AFL-CIO Executive Council member Nat LaCour, one of several AFL-CIO leaders who addressed the conference, stressed the importance of rebuilding the infrastructure of New Orleans and surrounding areas. LaCour, secretary treasurer emeritus of the American Federation of Teachers, said not enough is being done to provide students here and around the country with a quality education. Many schools closed after Katrina still remain closed. Louisiana AFL-CIO head Lou Reine said, “We can’t afford less than the best for our children.”
Many speakers stressed the importance of passing the Employee Free Choice Act and building a universal, affordable health care system.
Labor unions didn’t cause the economic crisis, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka told the gathering. “We will lead America out of this crisis. Organizing, unionizing and collective bargaining will help end the crisis.”
Trumka said the election of Barack Obama was a triumph over racism but it was not an end to racism.
He and other speakers noted that in the 46 years since Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and his “I have a dream” speech, we have made a great deal of progress, but have a long way to go to end racism, discrimination and injustice.
Trumka emphasized the importance of honoring the real Dr. King who “believed in unions, walked the picket lines and gave his life to support sanitation workers in Memphis.”
The King holiday observance was capped off by a march around the French Quarter from historic Congo Square to the Superdome.