Monday, October 17, 2005

Providing the Labor of Reconstruction

My main preoccupation lately has been the rebuilding of New Orleans, and the moral imperative of insuring that that process is one which benefits the people living and returning there, not the economic parasites trying to remake New Orleans in their McWalmartland image. I'll try to be more punctual about this correspondence, as there are a lot of good ideas being floated around. Anyway, this is the article I just submitted for the newsletter of Steelworkers Local 711T, out at the Libby plant. Enjoy.

Providing the Labor of Reconstruction
By Michael Parker

The comparisons between September 11 and the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita run the gamut, from tragic to inspiring to chilling. Whereas both devastating events brought out the best in grassroots volunteer efforts on the part of individuals and communities, there were also catastrophic failures of government institutions, specifically the U.S. intelligence apparatus and FEMA. Another unfortunate similarity is the Bush Administration’s determination to exploit the situation for anti-worker power grabs.
In late 2001, federal intelligence, immigration and transportation safety were centralized in the name of “homeland security.” Workers were systematically stripped of collective bargaining rights and grievance procedures. Additionally, the relatively militant (as well as pragmatically successful) International Longshore and Warehouse Union was locked out in 2002 and threatened with replacement by Naval personnel on the West Coast docks.
As the rebuilding of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities begins in earnest, the pattern continues. The most outrageous situation is the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, a 1931 law mandating prevailing wages (estimated by the Department of Labor as $9.55/hour for New Orleans) be paid by employers with federal contracts. And no-bid contracts for reconstruction and temporary housing have already been granted to many of the usual suspects—Bechtel, Fluor, Halliburton and Shaw—described by Naomi Klein in a recent issue of the Nation as “the same gang that spent the past three years getting paid billions while failing to bring Iraq’s essential services to prewar levels.”
The repeal of Davis-Bacon was denounced by state AFL-CIO leaders from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama at a press conference in Jackson, Mississippi, on September 29. But the “right-to-work” laws in those states, as well as Republican dominance of statewide offices, undercut their effectiveness through normal political channels. The exception could be Louisiana.
Louisiana stands alone among the four states with a Democratic governor and senator. Both were elected by narrow margins, and each has a vested interest in the return and continued employment of working-class African American New Orleanians. Senator Mary Landrieu is also the scion of a venerable New Orleans political family and should face a bruising re-election bid in 2006. Louisiana’s two Democratic Congressmen are also in southern Louisiana. Charlie Melancon’s district was hit hard by Rita, while New Orleans’ William Jefferson, already facing federal investigation, may be looking for friends after facing labor hostility at his pivotal vote for CAFTA.
Despite this potential leverage, it is likely that the most effective action will come from the grassroots. To that end, Community Labor United has already taken a leading role. CLU has been working for nine years in the New Orleans area, bringing together progressives from the labor, civil rights, and faith communities. Working with the San Francisco-based Vanguard Foundation, they have established the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Their goals can be read at New Orleans-based SEIU organizer Jordan Flaherty, whose writings from inside New Orleans can be accessed at, says that CLU has “inspired me deeply. Many of the core members have been involved in community organizing in New Orleans since the Sixties or even the Fifties.”
CLU and the People’s Fund are definitely working in Baton Rouge, Jackson and Houston, organizing evacuees in those cities. Volunteer coordinator Becky Belcore told me that there is a volunteer working in Shreveport who she would put me in touch with, but nothing had materialized by the time this was to go to print. Interested parties should contact me at, and I will pass on any information I receive.
Seismic political change has often followed natural disasters, as those most affected are starkly reminded of their invisibility to the powers that be, and are galvanized into long-term action. I’ll let Jordan Flaherty have the last word: “The fall of the Somoza dictatorship was precipitated by his corrupt stealing of post-earthquake disaster aid in 1972. The faulty federal response to the 1985 earthquake that hit Mexico City helped to birth a grassroots movement that survives to this day. And, of course, the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi helped to elect Huey P. Long governor of Louisiana. Reconstruction is a natural issue for the labor movement, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because a democratic grassroots reconstruction is likely to generate solid union jobs in a region where the average wages are low and union jobs are few and far between.”


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9:19 PM  

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