A ‘Disposable Workforce’ in New Orleans After Katrina

By James Parks

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, told a convention of union workers in the Big Easy, last month: “Parts of this town look like a nuclear bomb hit two days ago, not like it was two years ago.”
Hammond says 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.

Tracie Washington, 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, a transit union president said 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, of the New Orleans teachers union, told the ILCA convention that even though many of the public schools were shut down, teachers have begun rebuilding.

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, said Saket Soni, 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 said: “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.”

Posted: Thu - November 1, 2007 at 01:44 PM