Eighty teachers and other school worker members of the American Federation of Teachers are spending two weeks in New Orleans this summer, helping fix up damaged homes and schools, and tutor students in the hard hit Ninth Ward. The volunteers, part of AFT’s “Lend A Hand” program, worked with ACORN, Habitat for Humanity and the Children’s Defense Fund. The first group of AFT volunteers finished their stint July 7, and a second group arrived to continue the work. They say they want New Orleans residents to know they are not forgotten.
Linda Olsen, a special education teacher’s aide in Pacifica, Calif., found her volunteer experience “life changing.”
“The people here have suffered and lost everything, but they handle it with dignity,” she said. She told the AFL-CIO Now blog that, like many others around the country, she had thought everything in New Orleans was back to normal because of the images displayed in the corporate media — tourists in the French Quarter, the Saints playing in a renovated Superdome.
“The main thing we are taking back is the message that things are not fine,” said Olsen. “These people need help. I wish everybody in the country could come here and see for themselves the extent of the destruction and the spirit of the people.”
The AFT volunteers worked side by side with residents. They learned that only half the schools are open. Most of these have been turned into privately run charter schools. The others are part of the state-run Recovery School District. These school employees have no union representation.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the city and the levees broke, 4,900 public school teachers and 1,900 support staff, members of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO/AFT), were fired or forced to retire. Local officials were able to bust the largest union in the city. Now, two years later, there is a teacher shortage and many children have no schools to attend. Many have no transportation to get to the schools that are operating.
The AFT and its members have been involved in this Gulf Coast tragedy since it began. The AFT has been collecting funds from members to assist their union sisters and brothers in New Orleans. The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professions, part of the AFT’s health care division, sent 50 of its members to help the hurricane survivors.
A web site was set up to keep UTNO/AFT members informed about their schools, and help them find jobs and housing and retirement information. Many lost everything and were living with relatives far away. All were concerned about their students and schools.
To many, the Bush administration seemed more interested in giving out no-bid contracts to its corporate friends and eliminating the prevailing wage than rebuilding the neighborhoods and businesses. Said AFT President Edward J. McElroy, “It’s unconscionable that our national government would act to hurt those most in need while delivering a windfall to wealthy contractors.”
A year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, the worst hit areas such as the Ninth Ward lay vacant and in ruins. Thousands of residents who had evacuated could not return because of the lack of housing, jobs and schools. Because of the absence of meaningful help from the government, the AFL-CIO came forth with its $1 billion Gulf Coast Revitalization program.
In June 2006, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced investments by the labor federation’s Housing Investment Trust (HIT), Building Investment Trust (BIT) and Investment Trust Corporation (ITC) in four areas: affordable housing, economic development, home ownership and hospital and health care facilities.
The Mobilization for Young Men of Color program, announced by the AFL-CIO this spring, will be centered on workforce training, helping young minority males qualify for jobs on projects financed by HIT, BIT and ITC.
The ITC is spearheading an effort to establish two unionized plants in or near New Orleans to manufacture factory-built housing.
Sweeney said, “Housing, good jobs, good public schools, health care and a stable transportation system are as essential to this city as the dikes and levees, and we will work until they are all restored.”