Gulf workers confront race to bottom

NEW ORLEANS — Renaissance Park in Baker, La., has a name that does it no justice.

Home to Catherine Pitt, 31, an African American mother and her two children, it is row after row of cramped FEMA trailers sitting on a flat field encircled by barbed wire and patrolled by armed Blackwater USA security guards.

At 5 a.m. every morning, hundreds awaken and travel from there to a job somewhere in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast region.

At 5 a.m., Oct. 18, however, Catherine and hundreds of others stayed behind in Renaissance Park. I visited her in the afternoon. She is no longer able to get to the job she landed a year ago at the downtown Westin Hotel because the bus she rode is on a discontinued line.

“The cheapest alternate route, the cost of day care and the rent add up to more than I was making there,” she said.

While, at 5 a.m. every morning, African Americans remain behind the barbed wire at the camp, locked out of work in the city they toiled in all their lives, Latino immigrants gather in downtown New Orleans beneath a 60 foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. I was there at 5 a.m., too.

The granite image of the general, facing north, was constructed right after the Civil War by plantation owners memorializing their “hero” in the “War against Northern Aggression.”

At 5:30 a.m., a school bus carrying contractors pulled up at Lee Circle, where they got out to inspect the immigrants gathered there. When they weeded out ones who didn’t look young, strong or healthy enough, they began the bidding.

“Who will work for $5?” No one stepped forward.

“Who will work for $5.50?” A big group stepped up.

“Who will work for $6?” Still more came forward.

“What about $7?” The rest stepped up.

There were enough in the $5 and $5.50 groups. Those were taken. The others were left behind.

“Only half of those picked up will get paid anything at all,” said Saket Soni, lead organizer of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. “The rest are deported before payday.”

On Oct. 18, Soni met with 70 labor journalists, including myself, at a convention here of the International Labor Communications Association.

Among other topics, he discussed the situation at Renaissance Park and the buying of immigrant labor by the low bidders at Lee Circle. “The pattern of this reconstruction,” he said, “is to systematically lock out hundreds of thousands of African Americans and to systematically lock in and exploit hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers.”

Soni said, “The problem was not that the government was inept or that it didn’t do enough. The problem is that the government acted quickly to implement a right-wing plan to create an expendable work force and a race to the bottom. They took advantage of the storm to carry out a social experiment they never would have dreamed possible otherwise.”

He explained that the first step in the plan was to suspend the Davis-Bacon law, a law requiring payment of prevailing wages.

The second step was the suspension of affirmative action guidelines for federally funded projects — telling employers that it was OK to discriminate against Blacks and replace them with cheaper immigrant labor.

The third step, Soni said, was the establishment of a “no-bid contracting regime” to destroy the rights of workers and their unions.

The fourth step, he said, was the creation of an “immigration enforcement saturation zone,” enabling contractors to exploit immigrant labor and hook up with the government to have workers deported before payday.

I walked along the riverfront, Oct. 19, looking for one of the restaurants that Soni, in his talk at the convention, said were experts in running the “race to the bottom.” I passed the Riverside, a well-known seafood restaurant.

There was a long line. They take your name and you can wait at the bar. The bartender who is white said all 25 on the kitchen staff were Brazilians here on H-2 visas and that they earned $6 an hour. “They got rid of the Central Americans a year ago,” he said, “they were too much trouble. They paid them $8, but a lot of them were illegal.”

“Who worked in the kitchen before the Central Americans?” I asked. “The Blacks,” he said, “They were making $10, but, naturally, they got rid of them because it was cheaper to hire the Central Americans.”

“The Blacks had already taken a cut before they were fired,” the bartender explained. “Before the hurricane they got $14 an hour. They were cut back to $10 after the storm.” I left the place before they called my name. The bartender will soon be in the line of fire, too, I thought.

I phoned Soni and told him I had found a New Orleans restaurant that had taken advantage of the right-wing social experiment he had talked about and that it had, in two years, reduced its kitchen staff wages from $14 to $6 an hour. “What will they do next?” I asked.

“They can get prison labor for $5.25,” he said.

jwojcik @pww.org