The Guardian 19 October, 2005

"We demand jobs, justice in the Gulf"

Tim Wheeler

Gulf Coast union leaders hailed an action campaign launched by the peak union body the AFL-CIO on September 30 to defend workers’ wages and rebuild their hurricane-torn states while turning the nation in a new direction that puts "people before profits".

Julie Cherry, assistant to Louis Reine, Secretary-Treasurer of the Louisiana AFL-CIO, said the labour movement will stage a rally on the Capitol steps in Baton Rouge on October 29 to press the campaign’s demands, outlined in a statement, America Needs a New Direction: Good Jobs, Stronger Communities and a Just Economy. Speakers will include AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition President Jesse Jackson and leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

"The demand will be fairness in rebuilding Louisiana and the Gulf Coast", Cherry continued. "It is abominable that Bush would suspend the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage Act, take people in their darkest hour and crush them down a little lower. Louisiana is already at the low end of the wage scale and they would push us down even more."

Rebuilding, she said, "fortunately, or unfortunately, will be an opportunity to make money. We just want to make sure it is done fairly, that people who lost so much get jobs rebuilding at decent wages."

The labour movement’s hurricane relief efforts "brought out the best in so many people", she said. "So many union firefighters, EMS medics, police and utility linemen converged on the region that housing became a major problem. I myself sent out e-mails and faxes to AFL-CIO and affiliate offices all across the country and I saw how generously union people responded. It confirms your faith in human nature."

Robert Shaffer, President of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, said thousands in Biloxi and Gulfport remain homeless. He has visited the region to help deliver truckloads of aid. "There are people living in tents", he said. "Anybody who lived within three blocks of the Gulf has been wiped out. Katrina took out the entire coastline. It’s so big you can’t imagine it. We set up distribution centres to provide water, food and clothing. We are in a lot of areas where the Red Cross has not been."

Shaffer said Mississippi’s Re­publican Governor Haley Barbour is so hostile to organised labour that the AFL-CIO was not alerted, even though it is on the hurricane call-list. "That’s the first time in history they failed to contact us", Shaffer said. "The only difference is that we have a Republican governor who doesn’t like unions."

That anti-labour pressure is so pervasive, the Mississippi Red Cross refused to approve a team of United Auto Worker relief workers from GM’s Saturn plant in Tennessee, Shaffer said. "That was 30 volunteer workers who were ready to help out and they were not approved. We’ve got a plantation mentality down here. We’re really struggling. We’re serving the needs not only of our own members but non-union people as well."

The AFL-CIO has established seven Workers Centres to help union and non-union workers with job placement and other services.

Asked about the suspension of Davis-Bacon wage Act, Shaffer retorted, "Bush smells blood. If you get your opponent in the corner, beat him down. He’s going for a knockout of unions in this country. We have US$8- and US$9-an-hour jobs here. People work at whatever the employer wants to pay them."

Hurricane Katrina, the AFL-CIO statement declares, "was a mirror reflecting the ugly face of misguided, unjust federal priorities, priorities we must change." It cites rising poverty and unemployment, declining real wages, lack of health care and affordable housing, and skyrocketing energy costs, while corporate America and the rich gorge on profits.

Rebuilding from the ruins "can be a living laboratory for changing the priorities of America", the statement continues. "But it is an opportunity already being perverted by a white-hot campaign by conservatives aimed at seizing this opportunity to profiteer and promote their ideological agenda. Exploiting workers by suspending prevailing wage standards. Awarding no-bid contracts to discredited giant contractors like Halliburton. Privatising services that should be provided through proven public programs."

The AFL-CIO and its affiliates, the statement says, have "embarked on a campaign to give America a new direction, to put the interests of working families and the poor — half of whom work full time — before the special-interest, politically connected businesses and wealthy individuals." It declares, "We need to stop squandering our resources overseas and start shoring up communities here at home."

The action plan calls for "town hall meetings" in cities and towns across the nation and a door-to-door "Community Walk for Change" to take the message to one million homes.

Among the first demands is that Bush "reverse his callous suspension of Davis-Bacon wage protections for the working men and women who will rebuild the Gulf Coast." It calls on Congress to reject Republican plans to ram through permanent tax cuts for the wealthy while inflicting US$500 billion in cutbacks to vital social programs in the guise of freeing-up revenues for Gulf Coast reconstruction.

The campaign will also press Congress to raise the minimum wage and enact the Employee Free Choice Act to facilitate union organising. It calls for an excess profits tax on the enormous profits of oil and gas corporations.

People’s Weekly World, Communist Party, USA.

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