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Trades Leaders: NoLa Officials’ Objection to Labor Standards Crushed Post-Katrina Employment Growth



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In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Building Trades Unions of New Orleans attempted to use rebuilding efforts to secure opportunities for the city’s most disenfranchised residents. Family-sustaining careers were the primary objective.  But without the support of local and state governments, their mission was near impossible. 

Ten years after the disaster, 52 percent of African-American men in New Orleans are unemployed and 50 percent of New Orleans’ African-American children live in poor households.  These numbers are higher than pre-Katrina figures.  

A golden chance to create a more diverse workforce and provide opportunities to those who needed them most was squandered.  What’s worse, those who eventually rebuilt New Orleans were taken advantage of by fly-by-night contractors who swooped in.  Recent NBC News coverage of the ten year anniversary of the disaster shows that many Latino workers charged with the task of rebuilding have yet to be paid.

A recent letter from Tiger Hammond III, President of the Louisiana State Building and Construction Trades Council, and Peyton Hairston, Director of Gulf Coast Operations for North America’s Building Trades Unions, provides background on the politicians who allowed the opportunity to slip through their hands. They shine an important light on the forces at play:

Within 20 months of Katrina, our Building Trades Unions — together with North America’s Building Trades Unions and the Louisiana Works Workforce Commission — opened the Gulf Coast Construction Career Center in New Orleans. It’s an “apprenticeship-readiness” program designed to enable low-income and vulnerable youth to enter the apprenticeship/journeyman process via union-approved construction training. We’ve replicated the model in more than 75 metropolitan areas and are trying to put it in place along the Gulf Coast.

Over two-and-a-half years, the GCCCC graduated 31 classes totaling more than 400 students, 90 percent of them New Orleans residents. The program had an 89 percent completion rate; 90 percent of graduates were African-American.

Unfortunately, the program was terminated because politicians bowed to pressure from the “open-shop” contractor community by refusing to attach labor standards or local-hire provisions to publicly funded contracts for the rebuilding of New Orleans.

So most work went to out-of-state contractors employing out-of-state workers.

As Hairston and Hammond III note, the city and state have since spent a fortune to rebuild while simultaneously neglecting its citizens.  Preventing Building Trades unions from doing what they do best has exacerbated the problem, they write:

Since Katrina, more than $70 billion in taxpayer money has been spent on rebuilding projects without any policies requiring “high-road” construction, which includes enforceable local-hire provisions, apprenticeship utilization, and labor standards with monitoring and penalties for noncompliance.

Should the city refuse to embrace the high-road approach, New Orleans’ urban core will continue to face high rates of unemployment among African-American males.

A diverse workforce and higher wages are vital to the health of New Orleans. Lobbyist pressure, on the other hand, is anathema to progress.


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