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A ‘Disposable Workforce’ in New Orleans After


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A ‘Disposable Workforce’ in New Orleans After Katrina

by James Parks, Oct 19, 2007

Robert “Tiger” Hammond is not an emotional man. But when he talks about how little has been done to rebuild his hometown of New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina, he is moved to tears. Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, says:

Parts of this town look like a nuclear bomb hit two days ago, not like it was two years ago.

Hammond kicked off a panel of five New Orleans activists who told the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) convention in New Orleans what has (and has not) happened to the city’s workers since the hurricane. Click here to learn more from the ILCA convention and to view posts from ILCA members on conditions in New Orleans.

The bottom line is that reactionary ideologues from the Bush administration, and some business and civic leaders in New Orleans, took the damage and dislocation caused by the hurricane as an opportunity to conduct a mass experiment in privatization and union busting, panelists said. Tracie Washington, CEO of the Louisiana Justice Institute, a civil rights law group, says that after Katrina, there was an

absolute assault on civil rights and social justice guarantees that we thought we had. There was a blatant assault on workers’ rights.

In quick succession, she says, the working people—mainly African Americans:—who were making a decent living were the first to go: All 4,900 teachers and thousands of bus drivers were laid off. That was followed by a decision not to rebuild much of the public housing destroyed by the storm and the slow reopening of the schools and the decimation of the public transportation system.

Joe Prieur, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1560, says more than 500 members of his union lost their jobs right after Katrina. And management has refused to upgrade or increase the number of workers or to buy any new buses to replace the ones destroyed by the flood.

Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, told the ILCA convention that even though many of the public schools were shut down, teachers have begun rebuilding their union. (Click here to read more about the schools.)

Washington says the systematic elimination of jobs and the support system of public housing, schools and transportation services is something that could happen anywhere. Despite the glitz of Bourbon Street and Harrah’s Casino in downtown, she says, the people of New Orleans are suffering.

We residents of New Orleans are the canaries in the coal mine. And the canaries are dropping off. Don’t think closing schools and cutting transportation is something that can’t happen somewhere else. The same people who built our jacked-up levees are the same ones who built your bridges and roads.

The assault on workers can best be seen in the way immigrant workers and local workers are being manipulated in a race to the bottom, says Saket Soni, lead organizer of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. Hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers were brought to New Orleans to work at the same time that hundreds of thousands of African American workers were being displaced and fired. Soni says the immigrant workers are being exploited by employers. For example, he says contractors hire immigrant construction day workers and require that they work long hours. But on pay day, they call the immigration service to deport the workers.

Soni says:

They have created a completely disposable workforce. They have locked one group out and locked another group in. The reality of New Orleans is that the storm gave the opportunity to a lot of people to push through a social experiment they wouldn’t dare try anywhere else in such a short time. You find the cheapest, most exploitable workers, pay them little or nothing, and if they complain, fire them or deport them.

Workers using their political strength could be the key to solving New Orleans’ problems, Mitchell says:

Call and write your congressman. Tell them to investigate, hold a hearing on what’s really going on here.

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