Labor Family News - Winter 2008

After Katrina
Unions Help Rebuild after Disaster
Unions Win It!
Did You Know.?

After Katrina
New Orleans Working Families Still Struggle for Higher Ground


After Katrina
A sign outside the St. Bernard public housing development protesting the decision of New Orleans housing authorities to prevent residents from returning to their homes. (Photo by Vibhuti Mehra)  

Imagine this. You are a proud union member and live a comfortable middle class life with your family. Suddenly a hurricane strikes your city and destroys everything you owned. You try to start life anew, but your union job no longer exists. The insurance company will not cover the damages to your home. Rents have skyrocketed. For over two years, you have been living with your family in a FEMA trailer. The neighborhood public school is boarded up and your children are on the waiting list of another public school 10 miles away. You and your spouse now rely on public transit to get to your temporary low-wage jobs but the buses don't run as often as they used to. There is no childcare available nearby and your children are often left unsupervised. Your spouse is showing signs of clinical depression but you have no access to mental health services. Recently, FEMA served you an eviction notice stating they wanted their trailer back.

This is the story of many working families in the post-Katrina New Orleans.  It is the story of racism, greed, opportunism, corruption and political apathy. In the two years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, barely 50 percent of its residents have been able to return home. Those who have come back are still seeking higher ground.

Says Wade Rathke, chief organizer for ACORN and SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans, "The storm became an opportunity for every discredited policy, every proposal that had been turned down by the voters, to spring forth."  Designers of the city's reconstruction seized every opportunity to lock out and exclude the city's working poor and union members - largely African American. Among the first to be fired were thousands of public school teachers affiliated with United Teachers of New Orleans. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1560 lost 700 members. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is pushing ahead its plans to demolish public housing units that were only minimally damaged and replace them with "mixed-income" housing - with fewer affordable units and golf courses!

The concerted effort to privatize the city has led to other workers being exploited. Under the guise of labor shortage, private contractors are bringing in migrant workers from other states as well as guest and undocumented workers from Asia and Latin America. The reality that greets them is that of cramped trailers, confiscated passports, hazardous jobs, no access to healthcare, below minimum wages or no wages at all, and constant threats of police violence and deportation.

Saket Soni, lead organizer at the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice points out, "It is a race to the bottom where workers are made to undercut one another.You find the cheapest, most exploitable workers, pay them little or nothing, and if they complain, fire them or deport them."

The story of New Orleans is the reason why we need a stronger workers' solidarity movement that preempts social experiments conducted on the backs of workers. So, next time a disaster strikes a city, unions and workers rights groups can be prepared to take action and restore the jobs, lives and dignity of workers.

Work, Family, Community:
Unions Help Rebuild after Disaster


Over the past six years, America's working families have been hit hard by many catastrophic events - 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Southern California wildfires, to name a few. These natural and man-made disasters have devastated and dislocated thousands of working families. In the midst of these tragedies that also affected thousands of union members, the labor movement was there - leading rescue efforts, donating blood, volunteering time, and providing the comfort, relief, support, and resources to help their brothers and sisters in need.

Union Families in the Aftermath

In October 2007, the Southern California wildfires burned thousands of homes, forcing working families to evacuate from their communities and leave their homes.  Union families sought refuge in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium awaiting news about the fate of their homes and belongings.  Fortunately, not many lives were lost, but many working families were left homeless, without funds or support to rebuild their lives.

Two years earlier, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina unleashed devastation at a scale that left almost two thousand dead and thousands of working families displaced. Although the working poor were hit the hardest by Katrina, the disaster also impacted the empowered middle class workers - union members - who found that they were just one or two paychecks away from losing everything.  Biased, discriminatory and anti-union reconstruction policies in cities like New Orleans have made it harder for working families to rebuild their lives even though it has been over two years since the hurricane struck.

Six years ago, over 600 union members died in the 9/11 attacks. Many union brothers and sisters risked their lives and died at the frontlines of rescue missions to help victims and survivors. Many union members lost their livelihoods. For example, over 6,000 SEIU members lost their jobs, leaving them without resources to support their families. Years later, many members continue to suffer from depression, respiratory problems, insomnia and other illnesses linked to what they witnessed and inhaled during the 9/11 aftermath.

Labor Comes Together to 'Support its Own'

During the 9/11 rescue efforts, workers, represented by several different unions, worked as EMTs, paramedics, dispatch operators, janitors, police officers and firefighters. They helped clean up Ground Zero, raised money and donated blood. Renée Boyd, a heavy equipment operator and member of AFSCME DC 37, didn't worry about the impact her work would have on her health.  "I just wanted to help our country and our workers recover from that terrible crime," Boyd says.  Unions in New York City, Virginia and Washington DC played a big role in bringing the community together and rebuilding in the aftermath of 9/11.  AFSCME/CSEA 1000 members raised over $17,000 for New York City relief in the hours just after the attacks. The AFL-CIO Executive Council and individual unions urged Congress to act immediately to address the pressing health needs of workers exposed to Ground Zero toxic substances.

How Unions Can Be Prepared:

  • Work with members build a disaster fund (like a strike fund)
  • Educate members about the union's resources and programs for disaster relief
  • Get acquainted with and partner with AFL-CIO Community Services 
  • Create a volunteer pool in case of emergency     

New Orleans Labor Movement Fights Back

The labor movement in New Orleans suffered a big blow due to the anti-union policies that took control of the city's rebuilding efforts post-Hurricane Katrina. Teachers, bus drivers and other public transit employees, construction workers, health care workers and public employees were among the many unionized workers in New Orleans who lost their jobs to private businesses and contractors. But they are coming together and fighting back.

Dr. Brenda Mitchell, President of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO/AFT) says the teachers' union has been engaged in rebuilding itself from the ground up with legal battles, support for former members still in the city and an aggressive organizing drive reaching out to the new teachers working without a contract. According to Mitchell, the AFL-CIO and AFT provided staff and assistance in organizing and political strength to help the teachers regain their voice. "The labor movement in this city is alive and well. You need to tell the story of how labor came together to support its own because if they can come after one of us, they can come after all of us," says Mitchell. 

Where the Federal government and local business have failed to act, the labor movement may be providing the best hope of rebuilding and returning for the exiled working families of New Orleans. The unions are building manufactured housing, retail and health care facilities. In 2006, the AFL-CIO announced a $1 billion union-sponsored Gulf Coast Revitalization Program (GCRP) that includes a training component as well as $750 million for construction projects in New Orleans. With this funding, the Building Trades, the AFL-CIO and the Louisiana Works Workforce Commission have established a career center to provide training so that the program graduates can enter union apprenticeship programs in the building and construction trades. The goal is to build a labor force to support Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts.

"In the future, we want to be the first place our members call."       

- Anthony Saavedra, Communications Director, San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council


Labor Movement Builds Solidarity in Southern California

During the Southern California wildfires, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council Community Services staff set up fire assistance centers to help union members affected by the fires. According to Anthony Saavedra, Communications Director at the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, many members didn't know that their union could  help outside of the workplace, which made the task of reaching out a bit challenging.  "We learned a lot of ways to improve our initial response.  We had to be proactive in finding those who needed help.  In the future, we want to be the first place our members call," he says.

In spite of the challenges, the Labor Council, in collaboration with the San Diego United Way, was successful in reaching out to 194 families, 42 of whom lost their homes.  "Not everyone we helped lost their homes, and often those are the people who are forgotten," says Saavedra.  Many members could not afford to live in a hotel for two or three days after they were evacuated so the Labor Council helped pay for a few nights. Additionally, the Labor Council provided gift cards to help pay for food and other essential needs. Saavedra believes that the collaboration with the United Way was essential in the Labor Council's success in reaching out to fire victims.  "It is important to build coalitions with community groups to be effective in times of need," he says.

Where To Look For Help?

  • AFL-CIO's Community Services Network that helps union members in crisis. The Network is connected to United Way and the Red Cross and helps connect union members to local resources:
  • Call the AFL-CIO Disaster Support Hotline: 877-235-2469 or 877-AFL-CIO9.


WHAT: Bereavement leave for non-family members
WHERE: Canada
WHO: OPEIU Local 397 & Saskatchewan Government Insurance and Saskatchewan Insurance

Members of OPEIU Local 397 employed at the Saskatchewan Government Insurance and Saskatchewan Insurance can take time off with pay to attend the funeral of co-workers, close friends, or other persons residing in their household. Management may grant up to one day for such leave.         

WHAT: Educational leave
WHERE: Hyannis, MA
WHO: SEIU Hospital Workers Union Local 767 & Southcoast Hospitals Group

Hospital workers in the Southcoast Hospitals Group are eligible to apply for an unpaid educational leave of absence for professional growth and development for up to one year. Upon return from the educational leave of absence, the worker will be reinstated to the first vacancy for which she/he is qualified.

WHAT: Head Start training reimbursement 
WHERE: Oakland, CA
WHO: SEIU Local 1021 & City of Oakland 

Members of SEIU Local 1021 who hold the jobs Early Childhood Instructor, Head Start Center Director, and Family Advocate are eligible to receive $200 per year from the City of Oakland as reimbursement for expenses they incur in meeting the educational requirements under the federal program guidelines.

WHAT: Child Care Subsidy
WHERE: Oakland, CA
WHO: UAW Local 2865- Academic Student Employees Unit & Regents of the University of California 
Starting July 1, 2008, registered students with at least a 25% Academic Student Employee (ASE) appointment at the University of California can get up to $300 per quarter or $450 per semester in reimbursements for the care of non-school age children.

Questions?  Want a copy of the actual contract language?  Call 510-643-7088 or email


California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed three bills that would have expanded the state's paid and unpaid family leave laws, and would have prohibited discrimination based on family responsibility saying the laws are already 'too confusing.' San Francisco Chronicle, October 2007  

PTA on Resume = Kiss of Death
Researchers had volunteers rate a pair of fictitious job applicants, all equally qualified, same gender and same race.  One listed PTA coordinator under 'other relevant activities."  That resume was rated as less competent, less suitable for hire, and deserving of a lower salary.  "This is the first study to show consistent, significant evidence for the motherhood penalty over a broad range of measures," write Cornell researchers Shelley Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik.  Parental status was the only difference and the discrimination was significant. Participants recommended 84% of female non-mothers for hire, compared to just 47% of mothers.  The recommended starting salary for mothers was $11,000 less than that offered non-mothers.  University of Chicago Press, March 1, 2007


Unions Win Child Care Subsidy
The New York Union Child Care Coalition won $975,000 from the City Council for child care subsidies and to study the impact of these subsidies and parent support workshops on the productivity of NYC municipal workers and workers in subcontracted agencies. The study, conducted by Cornell University, will show the effect of affordable, quality child care on work performance.  The three pilot groups include union members from AFSCME DC 37, SEIU 1199 and Teamsters Local 237.  United Federation of Teachers (UFT) will participate in the committee that oversees the project.

Ohio Improves Maternity Benefits 

The state will offer maternity benefits to far more pregnant workers than required by federal law, under regulations approved by its Civil Rights Commission. The regulations require businesses with four or more employees to offer 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave to pregnant workers whose doctors or midwives deem it medically necessary. The benefit is available regardless of how long a worker has been at a company. This benefit will make Ohio the 19th state with a more generous maternity leave policy than those ordered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Did You Know...?

FACT:   Employees are far more likely to behave ethically at work if they have good work-life balance.

VITAL Statistic

Vital Statistic
(Click image to open PDF PDF)


We are starting our 15th year of the Labor Project for Working Families with a powerful issue about New Orleans' unions and the ways that unions organize workers and families to fight back. I have learned over the years how unions play many roles in workers' lives. In the inside story, Anthony Saavedra from the San Diego Labor Council says that "we want to be the first place our members call" in a disaster. When I worked at District 65 UAW in New York City, the union was the first place an older member called when his wife died. He turned to his union for support and advice. Individual problems were dealt with but always with an eye to a collective solution. When workers had child care problems, we set up a child care information service and bargained for a child care fund and stronger language on flexible work schedules. 

The work at the Labor Project has taken a similar direction. We answer members' questions about family leave issues but at the same time help unions negotiate for stronger contract language. Over the years, we have gotten more involved in advocating with unions for public policies that strengthen workers rights on family issues, such as passing Paid Family Leave in California and working with other states to pass similar legislation.

And coming full circle with the stories in this issue, we are reminded of the struggles of individual members and how important it is to have a union and a union movement that supports members in disasters and hard times and then fights for broader solutions.



Send ideas, news and comments to

Netsy Firestein

Jenya Cassidy

Reprint freely, with acknowledgement

Published quarterly by the Labor Project for Working Families

2521 Channing Way No. 5555
Berkeley, CA 94720
Phone (510) 643-7088
Fax: (510) 642-6432

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