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Dispatches from the Gulf Region

Black and Latino community organizers in New Orleans respond to a recent study that documents a huge decline in the workers’ rights and conditions in the city.
 
 
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According to a powerful new report released on July 6 by the Advancement Project, the National Immigration Law Center and The New Orleans Workers Justice Coalition, Black and Latino workers in Post-Katrina New Orleans have faced a shocking catalog of abuses, including wage theft, widespread and massive health and safety violations, racism and discrimination, law enforcement violence, and more.

Through first hand accounts, the report paints a detailed and dramatic picture of declining workers' rights in the city. Despite a monumental need for labor to restore the city, and billions of dollars spent on rebuilding, Black and Latino workers have been pitted against each other in a race to the bottom, while businesses and contractors have gorged on huge profits. With housing still unavailable for many, profiteering and displacement has been the rule.

Pre-Katrina, Latinos made up 3 percent of New Orleans population (although a larger percentage in New Orleans' suburbs). Most were long-term residents, and there was very little in the way of social services and infrastructure specifically for the recent immigrant community. When thousands of immigrant workers arrived for work in the city's reconstruction, they faced hostility and exploitation, with few allies and virtually no systems of support.

Simultaneously, African-American workers from New Orleans have faced personal loss and displacement, combined with a legacy of workplace exploitation that dates back to New Orleans' status as a center of the Southern slave trade.

The demonizing of immigrant workers -- while blatant violations of workers' rights were ignored -- set the stage for the abuse that followed. In October, Mayor Nagin asked a gathering of businessmen, "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" Later, in a mayoral debate, he added, "Illegal is illegal, so I'm not supportive of illegal aliens or illegal immigrants working in the City of New Orleans." For the most part, the New Orleans media has followed this same framework.

Progressive organizers in the Black community have also expressed reservations about the new arrivals. "I'm not disputing the desirability of all oppressed peoples uniting against a common oppressor," Mtangulizi Sanyinka, project manager of New Orleans' African American Leadership Project tells me. "But right now this idea of Black-Brown unity is more of an idea than a reality."

"You have to put this into perspective," continues Sanyinka. "Latinos are working in horrible conditions that ought to be illegal, and being exploited. At the same time, many black people resent Latinos for coming in and working under those conditions. It's like when you have a strike, and a group is brought in as strike-breakers."

"Who is to blame?" Sanyinka asks, "Who is always to blame -- those that control the money and power. When you see Blacks and Latinos on the street, they don't act antagonistic. It's not a personal antagonism. But there is an institutional antagonism."

It's not just poor Black and Latino workers that have been exploited in New Orleans; the Black middle class has also been devastated. The United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) was the largest teachers' union in the city, and a majority of those represented were Black workers. The School Board voted in the fall to lay off all but 61 of the 7,000 employees, and last week let the teachers' union contract expire with little comment and no fanfare.

Rosana Cruz, Gulf Coast field coordinator for the National Immigration Law Center, is sympathetic to the apprehension from the Black community. "There are anxieties that are incredibly valid about a cultural genocide of this city," she tells me. "This is a city that was built on racism. The organizing we're doing is a counter to the racism dividing immigrants and African-Americans against each other."

"It's a conversation that's so juicy," Cruz adds, discussing the mainstream media complicity in framing the debate as Black versus Latino. "Whenever white folks get to not be the bad folks, when communities of color are pitted against each other, it spreads like wildfire. When the boss starts making people compete, it's no accident. It's not immigrant workers who started this discourse of, 'We like to work harder than anyone else,' it's the business community. It's not immigrant workers that left people on rooftops or didn't have an evacuation plan, or left the school system to decline. It's the elites of this city. Immigrants and people of color have been used throughout history to break unions. As long as people keep talking about Black-Brown tension, no one's talking about the real power brokers in this city."

"We have to redirect the conversation to white accountability," Cruz adds. "What it means to be an anti-racist white ally is central to this discussion. There needs to be a focus on the real stakeholders here, the real players. We're talking about fundamental issues to our society. What are the sources of power, who is benefiting, and how can they be held accountable. It's not just about immigrant workers. Both immigrants and African-Americans are dealing with a lot of the same issues, whether it is right of return or housing or voting or law enforcement violence -- all these issues have connections."

On May First in New Orleans, thousands of Latino workers demonstrated for immigrants' rights, filling several blocks of Canal Street in the heart of New Orleans' business, hotel and tourist districts. While small compared to the hundreds of thousands who marched in cities such as Dallas and Los Angeles, the March was still one of largest the city has seen in decades.

"Being part of the Latino community in New Orleans, we've always had issues of visibility around immigrants," said Cruz. "Now for five thousand people to come out and do something so public and visible, it's amazing and beautiful."

Despite the media, politicians and contractors pitting workers against each other, the May Day march demonstrated that these alliances are both possible and important. As the march flowed through the city, residents I spoke with expressed their support.

Jerome Smith, a Black community organizer from New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, came to express his support for the immigrants' rights struggle. "I heard from Houston evacuees they were excited by your walking out (of schools and jobs during the national day of action) and wanted to join but didn't know how to get involved," he told the crowd. "I want you to know that your struggle is in the heart of my people."

"Cheap labor from Blacks has been integral to this city's history and still is," Smith told me later. "It's woven into the fabric of this city. And now, corporations are benefiting from exploiting Latinos just like the old money of this city benefited from slavery."

Out of town visitors to our city are still shocked by the miles of darkened streets, the piles of trash and the shuttered storefronts. Just over a third of the city's 3,400 pre-Katrina restaurants have reopened, and a much smaller percentage of other businesses are back. With most businesses that have reopened concentrated in white areas such as the French Quarter, the Loyola/Tulane area, and the Garden District, historically underserved neighborhoods are even more devastated. For a rebuilding with justice, a wide and united movement is needed, now more than ever.

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To read the full report on post-Katrina worker conditions based on a compilation of more than 700 worker interviews visit AdvancementProject.org.

For other Resources for information and action in the Gulf Region visit: Reconstruction Watch, New Orleans Network, Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, and Color Of Change.

Jordan Flaherty is an organizer with New Orleans Network and an editor of Left Turn Magazine .