Bush Lapse on New Orleans Ignites Smoldering Fight on Labor Rights

by  Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory
Contributing Editor, In These Times

Omissions sometimes speak louder than words. If George Bush needed any further reminder that the cloak of impunity he sported for six years had finally worn thin, he got it following his state-of-the-union speech. Failure to mention the ongoing misery of displaced and returning New Orleanians while fixating on new war deployments to Iraq sparked a week of press attention to his administration's blind spot.

It also lit a fuse beneath a movement Bush has done his best to dampen: organized labor. In the days before the twin '05 cataclysms, Katrina and Rita, hit the Gulf Coast, New Orleans workers faced some obstacles to joining unions. But the city remained a rare bright spot for collective bargaining in the South.

Both houses of today's worker justice movement, the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation, called all hands on deck to help members and their families hurt, grieving, out of work, or homeless after the storms. The effort, centered in Baton Rouge, was a model of solidarity and humane intervention. That's one reason labor expressed some of the loudest outrage about Bush's silence in his recent address.

But that wasn't the only reason. The administration has kept up a quiet onslaught against Louisiana unions ever since the storms. Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act's promise of prevailing wages under federal construction contracts. The result, says local electrician union president Robert Hammond, is chopping in half the wages of his members while handing over work to out-of-state and foreign firms with no accountability for quality or safety. Bush also pushed for privatizing local schools in the wake of the flood. He and the state reneged, says Brenda Mitchell, president of United Teachers of New Orleans, on a contract with her 4,700 members, many of whom remain jobless. "Now what's happened in New Orleans is a man-made disaster," Nat LaCour, secretary-treasurer of American Federation of Teachers told the Associated Press.

Union members may be the constituency most dangerous to Bush's campaign and governance style. That's because many who cut their teeth at the bargaining table can detect beneath his aw-shucks tone the raw demands for control by a boss who takes his own privilege and workers' sacrifice for granted. Union members of color, particularly African American men and women who have overcome a legacy of prejudice and exclusion within their trades, are among those most reluctant to stand down before his assertions of corporate authority.

Historian Michael Honey's new masterpiece, Going Down Jericho Road, documents Martin Luther King's career-long collaboration with the labor movement. It focuses on the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968 and forms a timely reminder that the fights for civil rights and worker justice are inextricably interwoven. This is especially true in the South, where the legacies of segregation and poverty remain a daunting challenge for the region's leaders and the nation's.

Bill Lucy, who marched with King 40 years ago and now vice president of the public-service union AFSCME, has joined in community protests in New Orleans. Why? In a city that had been a model for making housing available to poor working families, New Orleanians lost more than 80 percent of units due to closures and condemnations, with scant substitutes on anyone's drawing board. That's why the AFL-CIO recently took the lead in announcing a $1 billion dollar investment of workers' pension funds to redevelop affordable housing in the city. Union leaders expect this strategic stewardship to be both humane and profitable, doing well by working families over the long term by doing good in the world.

At the federal level, labor's foremost piece of legislation in the new Congress is the Employee Freedom of Choice Act. It would restore basic fairness to workplaces by discouraging threats or reprisals against workers trying to form a union or secure a first contract. It languished under lockstep Republican rule, but steadily gained support and even a few GOP co-sponsors in the past two sessions. Now, with a new day breaking in D.C. and a labor movement rank and file rekindled after victories last November, it is due to expand on the 44 sponsors in the Senate and 215 in the House that it enjoyed in '06. Look for this bill to move forward as the lobbying push from local members--and a surge of support following the president's gaffe--puts pressure on Congress to ease the burden on workers.