Hard Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on August 23rd 2005.  Within a few days it was apparent that this storm was historic, and the resulting damage would be catastrophic.  As a representative of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, a Labor Union representing nearly 140,000 members in the construction industry, I was sent to the area to assess the impact on our members, and our industry while the city of New Orleans was still mostly under water.

What I found in the early days was complete and utter devastation to our membership.  Those lucky enough to remain in their homes were forced to deal with rebuilding, or helping family members rebuild, many fled the area never to return.  As an institution, our union was equally devastated.  Our membership, already under severe stress from low union density and low wages were scattered with no income as construction sites were shut down for the foreseeable future.  Union members in New Orleans affected by the storm already had some of the lowest wages and benefits in the country for members of our union.  Easily 2/3rds of our membership decided to leave the area, many never returned.

After careful examination, we found the effect on our industry to be much deeper and complex.  The Louisiana Gulf Coast, similar to Houston, is home to a number of large oil, gas and chemical refineries.  While the nation focused on the devastation to the local infrastructure and the rebuild, the refineries rushed to get back online and had to do so with half of the local workforce.  New Orleans, also home to a large tourism industry, suffered severe damage to the existing hotels, commercial office space and tourist attractions in the central business district.  These businesses were also in need to rapidly recover in order to secure insurance monies and hire contractors to get up and running.  Lastly, the Federal Government was faced with how to rebuild and upgrade the devastated Infrastructure to protect the area from this type of catastrophe in the future.  Billions of dollars in aid and government contracts were awarded to large infrastructure contractors to rebuild the levies and flood walls in New Orleans.

While these industries moved fast to get back up and running, so did speculative contractors, insurance adjustors, and exploitative labor brokers.  With a severe lack of a qualified, trained local workforce, New Orleans bore witness to a flood of new workers into the area and industry.  These workers came in pursuit of steady work, many were easily exploited immigrant workers, some were foreign H2B visa workers and others were merely unskilled workers desperately seeking a steady income.  This migration brought with it some of the worst forms of exploitation.  Wage theft was incredibly rampant, as well as FLSA overtime abuse.  Untrained workers were forced to work in hazardous conditions without the proper health and safety training.  Immigrant workers faced the most exploitative situations, many were threatened that if they reported the abuse they would be exposed or deported.

The infrastructure needed, to provide a wide scale mass education program for workers, was completely non existent.  The Federal and Local Government was also ill-equipped to handle the influx of workers and new found abuse tactics.  Worker Centers, like Congreso de Jornaleros, provided the only means to educate the workforce of the abusive situations they were encountering.  Had Labor unions, combined resources on a mass scale with worker centers, the opportunity to build a real worker movement in the wake of this devastation existed.  Combined Unions and Worker Centers could have provided the education, awareness and training needed to combat labor and health and safety abuses, as well as provided the necessary Governmental advocacy needed to enforce federal laws, while educating local governments of the issues.

This opportunity was missed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, those that made out the most were speculative contractors, government contractors, businesses that thrive on insurance, government funding and a business model built on the underground economy.  The taxpayers footed the bill, while the workforce received little.  This should guide our thinking and our collective strategy as we prepare for the rebuild in the wake of Harvey and Irma.

-James A. Williams, Jr. – General Vice President at Large/Organizing