After a Year, Hurricane Katrina Still Pummels Workers

The first week he was in New Orleans, Juan Sifford was recruited on a street corner to tear down a chain-link fence and dig up some bamboo roots. The contractor promised him and three other workers $100 each for the job.

When the work was done and the men piled back into the contractor's truck, he drove them to what Sifford calls "a really bad neighborhood. He climbs down off the truck and he gives us $120. Not individually, collectively. Then he showed me his sidearm."

The only thing unusual about Sifford's story is that he's not a Latino immigrant. He's a Black man from North Carolina, trying his luck as a day laborer on the street corners of post-flood New Orleans.

On the corners, all the tensions that beset Black and Latino relations throughout the country are played out. Before the levees broke, Latinos made up no more than three percent of New Orleans' population. Today they're 20 percent, as immigrants seeking work in demolition and construction have arrived from other U.S. cities and from south of the border.

At the same time, displaced New Orleanians, mostly African Americans (who were two-thirds of New Orleans' pre-flood population), are struggling to return to the city and to their jobs. Often, they can't come back because schools are gone, homes are gone, and rents for the housing that's left have doubled or tripled.

WORKER JUSTICE COALITION

The New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, made up of new and old grassroots and advocacy organizations, wants to give such workers a voice in the city's reconstruction. The odds against them are formidable, given the chaotic, anything-goes environment.

"The federal government dismantled every protection, every safety net, every mechanism for accountability," says Saket Soni, an organizer for the coalition. "It created a void in which the only law that governs reconstruction is the contractor food chain."

Contrary to the hopes of many construction workers who've flocked to the city, it's not a seller's market for labor power. In July the city's jobless rate was 7.2 percent, higher than the summer before the flood. In such an atmosphere, resentments and stereotypes flourish.

According to a new report from the Advancement Project, the National Immigration Law Center, and the Worker Justice Coalition, who interviewed more than 800 workers on street corners, on buses, and in parks, "The perception is that workers of color are competing for jobs. The reality is that private contractors are competing for the cheapest labor."

Immigrant workers tell many stories like Juan Sifford's, of unpaid wages, broken promises, and other abuses. The Advancement Project report makes plain that employer theft of wages is one of the commonplaces of day labor. Of 66 workers interviewed in City Park, 60 percent had not been paid for part or all of their work.

BRIDGING THE GULF

Even among those fighting for workers' rights, the divisions between workers of color were exemplified by two large protest marches held last spring. One, on April 1, was led by Jesse Jackson and focused on voting rights. The 4,000 marchers were mostly Black; they demanded the "right of return" and priority for Katrina survivors in jobs and training. A month later, a 5,000-person May Day march for immigrants' rights was, not surprisingly, mostly Latino.

Determined to bridge the gulf, coalition members look for ways to bring the two communities together. When the coalition helped organize the May Day march, it made sure that the slogans included respect for all workers and "multi-racial unity," as well as immigrant rights.

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Organizer Colette Tippy says that Latino workers active with the coalition "are trying to tie their destiny to that of African Americans instead of to the history of white immigrants."

UNIONS REBUILD

While grassroots activists look for footing in the ravaged city, the AFL-CIO and two affiliates of the Change to Win federation are taking an indirect, and, they hope, larger-scale approach to organizing workers.

Through a Worker Resource Center founded in July, the Laborers and the Service Employees (SEIU) are offering free classes in job skills for workers ranging from certified nurse's aids to construction workers. The construction jobs available are mostly in the $12-14 range, the health care jobs $7-$8.

The AFL-CIO is coming at the jobs problem from a different angle: three investment trusts sponsored by union pension funds that will pump $700 million into construction of apartments, hotels, and hospitals, and into home mortgages.

Over seven years, the plan is to spend $250 million to build 5,000 to 10,000 housing units and to generate nearly six million hours of union construction work. The federation's Building and Construction Trades Department will offer apprenticeships.

And who will get these jobs? Although both sets of unions say they are open to all, the programs are targeted to former Gulf Coast residents. The Laborers' program, for instance, asks applicants to read at an eighth-grade level, and graduates of their first class were all African Americans.

Rosana Cruz, Gulf Coast field organizer for the National Immigration Law Center, says, "For unions to come in now and just pay attention to Latinos, after decades of ignoring Blacks in the South-'here's where we can increase our market share'-would be awful." And indeed, the unions do seem focused on the population most likely to provide a stable base for future unionization.

How will unions and grassroots coalitions deal with a situation that seems scripted to benefit employers-workers wrangling for jobs and blaming each other?

Kimberley Richards of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond wants to do her part through education. If the Worker Justice Coalition does its job, she says, it will help both African American and Latino workers "understand how labor abuses in this region have built capital for this country.

"When you see the relationship of labor injustice to the building of wealth, you get a greater understanding that whatever tensions there are between us do not come out of our own tensions with each other."


The report, And Injustice for All: Workers' Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans, is available from The Advancement Project.