Slams ‘corporate scavengers,’ government inaction

BATON ROUGE, La. — Sporting union, NAACP and ACORN T-shirts, more than 1,000 rallied here Oct. 29 for jobs, living wages, affordable housing and public services for south Louisiana. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the Rev. Al Sharpton were joined by rank-and-file workers and community activists in calling for a rebuilding program that puts victims of Katrina and Rita first. Speakers also called on the federal government to supply grants, not loans, to local governments for basic services.

The rally’s sponsor, the NOAH coalition (New Opportunities for Action and Hope), founded by community and labor organizations, celebrated the reinstatement of the Davis-Bacon wage protection, forced by mass pressure, but said it was only the first step on a long road ahead.

“The only way we can recover is with living wage jobs that go to Louisiana workers first. We are not just rebuilding Louisiana, we are rebuilding lives,” said Sibal Holt, president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO and rally emcee.

Two months after the worst catastrophe in our nation’s recent history, hundreds of thousands are still displaced and jobless, while aggressive corporate, real estate and construction interests are rushing into the region to profit from the devastation.

In one instance, 75 local union electricians were fired from a wiring job at a nearby airbase, and out-of-state nonunion workers were hired instead by Halliburton subcontractor BE&K of Birmingham, Ala.

Laborers Local 689 Business Manager Barry Kaufman, like hundreds of thousands of other New Orleans residents, lost his house and has no place to stay near his job. “It takes me four hours a day to commute. People need a place to stay. That’s number one. Then schools, to bring the families back. And livable wages, not starvation wages like before the storm,” Kaufman told the World.

“Those were my folks in front of the Convention Center. They made $8 an hour and had no way to get out” when Katrina hit, he said.

Anthony Gomez from the Bricklayers said his union, like many of the others, was helping members with a special emergency relief fund. He, too, sustained losses: “I lost my tools, truck and scaffold.” Gomez had flood insurance but the tangled bureaucracy has held up some payments.

Unions are trying to contact all their members who have been dispersed across the country, many in Texas, Florida and Georgia. “We are reaching out to our members, plugging them into services, talking to them, helping them make decisions,” said Garrick Farria, Louisiana Unite Here district manager. Farria, from Metairie, La., was relocated with his wife Denita Singh Farria and their children to Dallas. While the Farrias work on their situation and reach out to union brothers and sisters, their children are still in Texas with relatives. Separated families are still a major issue for the survivors.

Unions are also angry at New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for not appointing labor representation to his 17-person rebuilding commission. “How are you going to rebuild without labor?” Kaufman asked.

Rev. Jackson, who started his speech with a storm survivors’ “Bill of Rights” that includes “the right to return home,” received strong applause.

Our country’s “national character is on trial,” Jackson said. He assailed those who would change the racial make-up of the area. “This crisis is not an opportunity to change the character of Louisiana and New Orleans.”

Calling on the Bush administration to aid the region — not with loans, but with grants — Jackson asked, “Where is the money?” which the crowd immediately took up as a chant.

The Rev. Al Sharpton also fired up the crowd, saying, “It is hypocritical to mourn Rosa Parks and at the same time relocate Rosa Parks’ children. Bechtel is trying to move you out. But just like Rosa Parks wouldn’t get up, we won’t get up. Sit in your seat!”

Calling the Bush gang a “greedy animal of prey,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney accused “corporate scavengers” of plundering New Orleans and putting the cost of rebuilding on the backs of the most needy “by cutting the very federal programs survivors depend on most — Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, student loans, housing assistance — all while continuing his tax cuts for the rich.”

Sweeney called on the federal government to rebuild in the right way and to replace “poverty and racism with opportunity and justice.”

Concerned that corporations will exploit potential divisions in the working class, labor is working hard to build unity between workers of all races and national origins. A Service Employees union local from Houston, mostly immigrant women from Central America and Mexico, joined the rally in solidarity with their Louisiana brothers and sisters.

“Workers understand work goes to Louisiana workers first,” an SEIU organizer told the World. Louisiana AFL-CIO President Holt told the crowd there is nothing wrong with immigrants seeking work in the region, but storm survivors, of all races and nationalities, should get first dibs.