NEW ORLEANS — It wasn’t the hurricane that almost killed this city. From day one, after Katrina, the Bush administration used this town as a laboratory to experiment with every type of right-wing social engineering scheme imaginable, and if it weren’t for the labor movement and its allies, they just might have succeeded.
Trafficking in human labor is one of the countless ways that big business succeeds in lowering wages, busting unions and hiking profits. A city and a people lying prostrate and almost helpless after a mega-disaster offered the perfect place to try this. Remember, the aim was to get labor that was not just cheap, but also completely disposable.
Apache and immigrant workers recruited, ripped off
A private contractor traveled all the way to an Apache reservation in Arizona to recruit 65 Native Americans for “good paying construction jobs” in New Orleans. When the Apaches pulled their vans up at the contractor’s address in town here, they found that the outfit that had recruited them was gone.
They went to FEMA for help and, not surprisingly, the agency didn’t know what to do, so it referred them to a church. The church hooked them up with a private contractor who had been handed control of City Park, a public park four times as large as New York’s Central Park. The contractor had turned the park into a refugee camp for cheap, disposable labor.
He took the Apache workers to Wal-Mart, where they were forced to purchase tents that became their homes. They had to pay the contractor $350 per month for the tent space he rented them in the public park.
Thousands of “disposable” immigrant laborers lived in the park with the Apaches for over a year after the storm. They waited every day for contractors who came by and held auctions, after which the low bidders among them got work. With federal immigration agents saturating the city, many never knew if they’d be back sleeping in the park that night or in a jail, waiting to be deported to Mexico or Honduras.
The auctions continue to this day at Lee Circle and at other locations around the city.
FEMA facilitates wage cutting
FEMA gave Patrick Quinn III, a hotel magnate and billionaire, $6 million to house people at his Astor Crowne Plaza hotel here after the hurricane. Most of the African American and white tenants staying there were, of course, both homeless and jobless. With his hotel full of people eager to work he applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for permission to hire Brazilians on H-2 visas because he could get them to work for $6 an hour or less.
The Bush-controlled department granted him permission despite the law that says such permission can be given only if the employer certifies that no other source of labor is available. The Brazilians, of course, were a better option for Quinn. They are as close as you can get to slave labor because if they disobey the boss he has the power to fire them. Once out of work, people with H-2 visas must return to their country.
A plumber’s view
I spent several hours Oct. 18 touring the city with Dana Colombo, an active member of the Plumbers and Steamfitters union. He pointed to the 100-year-old Charity Hospital, still shut down. It was the largest public hospital in the Gulf Coast region.
We passed the pumping stations near the levees. “Those pumps are 100 years old,” Colombo said. When the levee breaches were fixed after the storm, the pumps gave way, he said, “leaving neighborhoods under water even longer than they had to be.”
“Imagine how many jobs there would be if the government wanted to start a real jobs program,” he commented.
We drove through the New Orleans East neighborhood and Gentilly, Colombo’s neighborhood. For block after block there were still hundreds of empty houses, many still spray painted with the number that stood for how many bodies had been found in the dwelling.
We passed the high school he graduated from. It was still shuttered.
Night of the evacuation
Colombo’s wife had rushed him out of the house the night they evacuated. “The last thing I did,” he said, “was to pick up the bottles of beer I was brewing and put them on the kitchen countertop — I figured they’d be safe if we got water out of the basement and up into the kitchen.”
When the family returned after several weeks, the beer was gone, along with all the windows, the doors and one of the walls.
Murphy Oil has a refinery near his house and it dumped 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the swirling flood waters. The oil settled around hundreds of homes in Colombo’s neighborhood. Before he got back, the company dumped tons of sand to absorb the toxic sludge. Murphy Oil offered Colombo and everyone else $10,000 to settle out of court. He and his neighbors turned down the offer and are fighting it out in court.
Waste, corruption, cronyism
We drove past the St. Bernard housing development. “This gets me mad,” Colombo said. “I’m a plumber and a builder. These houses were built 75 years ago out of brick and mortar and they are solid as a rock. The plumbing is fine. They were home to hundreds of families who have not been allowed to return.” Acres and acres of the sturdy brick buildings are surrounded by barbed wire fences.
“If they hadn’t suspended prevailing wage laws, if they hadn’t turned money over to corrupt contractors who use cheap labor, these houses would be re-occupied by now and everyone in them could be employed at a good job,” Colombo said. “If the government gave the money it squandered on contractors directly to the people, each person who lost a job or a home could have gotten $100,000.”
Some of the people who had lived in the St. Bernard development are camped out in abandoned houses across the street from or on streets surrounding the perfectly good but barricaded housing. They call it “Survivor’s Village,” and they intend to stay put until they are allowed back home.
Conscious destruction of housing
Alec Revels, 17, and his brother Tim live with their mom in a small one-bedroom apartment not far from the barricaded housing development. His mother pays $1,000 for the apartment. “We’re in this neighborhood now because we couldn’t find anything in the neighborhood where our house was destroyed,” he said. “One-bedrooms there are $2,000. I couldn’t get back into my old school, and because of the high rents we had to move here.”
Marc Sear, 23, an African American, was changing a tire across the street from the sealed-off housing. “I grew up there,” he said, “and since we can’t move back in, I’m living in a FEMA trailer out here. We want to go home.”
Labor fights back
The labor movement in New Orleans has launched a fight back against the right-wing offensive in the city. They have reached out to nontraditional workers’ organizations and to civil rights groups in their effort to turn things around.
Robert “Tiger” Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, said, “We weren’t going to let them take away with the stroke of a pen what labor has built up over 100 years.”
Tiger explained how, with the help of the national labor federation and political leaders such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the labor movement was able to reverse the Bush administration’s suspension of the Davis-Bacon law here. That law requires payment of prevailing wages in construction jobs funded by the federal government. The Bush administration had tried to permanently trash the law for the benefit of private, no-bid contractors, many of them with ties to the administration.
Civil rights struggle
Tracy Washington, a prominent civil rights attorney in New Orleans, told how civil rights lawyers went to court to stop the demolition of houses to which the original owners had not yet returned. “They tried to take away even the property rights of African American homeowners,” Washington said. “The city allowed bulldozing of homes without even bothering to find out where the owners were.”
Civil rights groups, backed by unions, have managed to stop the indiscriminate bulldozing of unoccupied homes. Washington herself won the first such favorable ruling in U.S. District Court from Judge Marty Feldman. “He is a conservative,” she said, “but the type of conservative whose property is something you just don’t mess with.”
Teachers fight for public schools
Brenda Mitchell, president of United Teachers of New Orleans, is leading the fight to restore not only her union but public education itself in this city. After the storm, all public school teachers were fired and the union membership went from 4,700 to 0. The public school system was dismembered and replaced with three chaotic systems — a state-run “Recovery” district, a charter school system and a very small New Orleans-run public school system.
“We had to start all over again to organize the union, and we are doing it in all three school systems,” Mitchell said. “As of Oct. 15, we are back up to 1,125 union members and the schools we are in are the schools that are doing best.”
Transportation workers on a roll
Joe Pieur, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1560, carries on a similar struggle. “We had 700 members and 1,200 buses transporting 197,000 people a day before the storm,” he said. “Now we have 214 members transporting 30,000 a day. That’s pretty good, considering how, at first, they tried to destroy our union and public transportation altogether.”
Organize, organize, organize
Saket Soni, lead organizer of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice, represents a group that fights for the rights of immigrant workers in New Orleans. “The solution to the problem is to organize,” he said. “For this we build unity and all of us, labor unions and civil rights groups, are working together. This is important because New Orleans is not just a place for the right wing to carry out its social experiments. It is a city, a home for many people who have needs, hopes, dreams and aspirations.”
John Wojcik (jwojcik @pww.org), People’s Weekly World labor editor, reported this story while attending the International Labor Communications Association convention in New Orleans last month.