NEW ORLEANS - Labor leaders here say the oil spill will be worse for workers in this region than Hurricane Katrina was almost five years ago and that the major media, both locally and nationally, are actually downplaying its significance.
"First they said it was a thousand barrels a day, then 5,000, now 200,000 and the oil is getting closer every day," said Robert "Tiger" Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO and leader of the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). "And once it gets into the marshland it will become a bigger catastrophe than Katrina." "Tiger," as he is known in the labor movement and on job sites all over this city, said he fully expects workers here to be hit with a "double whammy" on top of Katrina because, "even if they succeed in building a side by side well that would mean at least 75 to 90 days more of oil gushing into the Gulf. That brings us to hurricane season ad very possibly oil washing up all over this region."
"Tiger," in an interview yesterday with the World, said, "I'm hearing already about people with strange rashes and there are whole stretches near the shores and elsewhere where you can already smell the oil. Fish, animals and sea gulls are dying and there is not enough publicity about it. It's a matter of the people's health and of their lives. And then, if the oil reaches those marshes more than 100,000 people will be almost immediately out of work - this, on top of Katrina and on top of the economic depression already going on is a lot for workers to have to handle."
David Magee, vice president of the dock workers' union (ILA, Local 3000), said that environmentalists and others the union has consulted warn that all major commerce here is in imminent danger. "We have a heads up that this spill will affect our industry adversely in the next two or three weeks. We have spoken to the membership and we are all trying to do our best to be prepared."
Union workers are already a key to the effort to minimize environmental damage and keep ships flowing through the mouth of the Mississippi River which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. "There are cleaning stations where our members are already cleaning the oil off the hulls of ships before they enter and pollute the river," Magee explained.
Despite this effort, he said, "it won't be long before major shippers take their cargo elsewhere. That will devestate us and hurt the entire national economy by driving up prices."
Magee and Chris Hammond, the local's secretary treasurer, told the World yesterday that they were both "first responders" after Katrina. They returned to work on the docks within three weeks after the storm to begin the work of rebuilding the port.
"I was lucky," Hammond said, "because I could live with family 35 miles north of here. Other workers didn't have a place to live and even today some of our guys have their families living as far away as Texas." Both were visibly shaken as they discussed the potential impact of the oil spill on dock workers here.
"The labor movement is working, through the Central Labor Council, with community and environmental groups to try to deal with this," Magee said.
"We are going to push hard to expand our influence in the elections this year," Tiger, the AFL-CIO leader said. "Candidates backed by labor won most of the elections in the southern part of the state last time around and we will push hard to elect more who come out strong for tougher regulations on the oil industry."
Magee said he hoped that people "will learn from this the importance of regulating these big companies. There is already reliable information that in a worse case scenario we could be looking at a total evacuation of New Orleans. Something so terrible as that would be the result of BP's cutting corners and not wanting to pay the $250,000 it would have cost them to put shut-off valves underneath the oil platforms." Tiger said it was President Bush who let BP off the hook when the company complained that spending the extra money was unnecessary because there would be no accidents.
Hammond and Magee said a broad based movement to fight BP and go after other abusive corporations would be bigger and stronger than it is now if the media were not doing such a poor job of explaining "just how serious this crisis is."
"Why does the media not demand that BP provide pictures or actual footage of the leaks?," Hammond demanded to know. "The company has submarines and all kinds of sophisticated technology down there. They've come forth with nothing and they havn't been forthcoming with information even to the President of the United States. President Obama was down here and offered them all kinds of resources. Why aren't they taking advantage of them?"
Photo: Chris Hammond, left, secretary treasurer of ILA Local 3000 and David Magee, right, vice president, were first responders in rebuilding the docks after Hurricane Katrina. (Blake Deppe/PW)