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An Open Letter to the Labor Movement regarding Katrina

Brothers and Sisters,

The crisis for the working class (whether employed or not, waged or not) continues to grow. Even as the nation, and especially the poor and Black working class of the Gulf states and New Orleans in particular, tries to pick up the pieces after Katrina’s (and Rita’s) devastation, the assault by capital and their partners in the government grows more intense — the suspension of Davis Bacon and OHSA safeguards, plans to defund the safety net to finance business interests in the reconstruction of the region, little thought to how those left behind will find a home in the reconstruction process and its outcome. The Democrats have failed to articulate a credible alternative to this plan or address this crisis in any significant way.

It is also true that the flip side of disaster is opportunity.  For the trade unions the moment presents a unique opportunity, not open since the sit-downs of the 1930s, to bring dignity, voice, a living wage and benefits in the form of unions to the masses left behind in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, particularly the poor and African Americans.  It is a well-established fact that Blacks are the most pro-union force in the U.S. They have proven time and time again to be this country’s most dedicated fighters of oppression. But the trade union movement may not be able to take advantage of this opportunity unless it addresses issues not yet confronted in any meaningful way by the debate and programs of the two new federations.

Now these issues have surfaced in the wake of Katrina, specifically in a piece by ACORN and SEIU leader Wade Rathke entitled “Chalabi and Katrina” (www.ChiefOrganizer.org, 3 October 2005) that disparages an organization, Community Labor United, and one of its principal organizers, Curtis Muhammad, with deep roots in the voter registration drives in Mississippi, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and for the last 20 years a part of the New Orleans community.

Days after the hurricane and while struggling with their own displacement, CLU folks began to pull together what has become the People’s Hurricane and Relief Fund. Since then they have held two national meetings, the first on September 10th with participation from 49 different organizations, and the second, September 30th-October 1st, with more than 100 participants from  prisoners’ and women’s rights groups, predominantly black cultural, faith-based, and educational groups, non-union worker organizations, community groups, legal scholars, and the ACLU. A Coordinating Committee, representing the breadth and community organizations throughout the Gulf Region as well as CLU’s own base, was chosen by the survivors, and working subcommittees and 6 regional communications centers (organizing offices) have been established. There has been widespread support for the PHRF both nationally and internationally. (For more, see the PHRF website: www.communitylaborunited.net.)

With this background we want to examine the issues raised by “Chalabi and Katrina”:

  1. Confront racism within our movement. White leaders, even those whose membership base is predominantly Black and Latino, should be careful about making pronouncements about who is genuine and who has the requisite skills. Confronting racism means understanding that our culture and economic and political system is build on racialized capital and we operate within that context. Diversity should not be confused with power. If we are serious about bringing unions to the south (all those red states and their right-to-work laws), then we need to cede power to those very folks we seek to organize.  The job of unions is to help give these forces additional information and resources they might not currently have so that they can chart their own future. 
  2. This movement must be built democratically from the bottom up, engaging the base to develop tactics and strategies that speak to their constituencies’ own needs, culture, and history.  The grassroots must control their own organization and movement.  Remarks that belittle the work of grassroots activists of many years standing, organizing on a model based on experience among working-class and poor Blacks of the south that does not fit the union template, have no place in the labor movement. We have too much to learn from each other.
  3. Fund and collaborate, and be prepared to take leadership from indigenous Black (and Latino, Asian, and Native American) forces on the ground. Many of these forces prior to the hurricane were not organized in ways that the unions are. They do not have a large paid staff, or offices with all the trappings.  But that does not mean that organizations like CLU are “little bitty” or insignificant or cannot “handle money” or could not “organize a two car funeral” (as Rathke puts it in “Chalabi and Katrina”). This disrespect fails to acknowledge, on one hand, that the base of the labor movement (and with it dues dollars) and that of the CLU are the same, and on the other hand,

    the severe obstacles, principally racism and the legacy of slavery, that on-the-ground folks face in the south.  Networking and informal ties have protected and nourished their organizing long after efforts like Operation Dixie or the Civil Rights Movement have moved on or declared victory. Organizations like CLU demand our respect and support.

  4. Build a united front against the enemies of working people, employed or the unemployed poor. Our task is so huge that we can not afford to undercut each other with name-calling, patronizing statements, and inappropriate remarks. We must air differences in a principled way. Many of us work with ACORN in our cities and are on good terms with many organizers from that group. We cannot believe that such a provocative and destructive letter was circulated by Rathke to other ACORN leaders or reflects their views. We hope that people of good will in ACORN will give some signals to disassociate themselves from this divisive and chauvinist tactic. None of us has discovered the sure-fire way to organize or build a movement. Let’s not give our enemies more fire power than they already possess. The Cold War era purges of the labor movement should have taught us that. 

We exist at what one might describe as a “Katrina moment.” It is a moment of both reflection and action.  It is a moment to better understand and unpack the issues of race and class that have become so obvious through this disaster. It is also a moment to challenge the prevailing neo-liberal economic theories that were partially to blame for the scope of the disaster and seem to be central to the discussion of the nature of reconstruction.  It is also a moment for a mass response to the disaster, which means that this is not the time for any one organization to hold itself up as the central core or the provider of franchises. To put it in other terms, this may be a moment to lay the foundations for a rebirth of a labor movement that is in synch with other social forces that share our opposition to the steady slide toward barbarism.

In solidarity,

(In alphabetical order)

Ajamu Baraka, Executive Director, US Human Rights Network

Gene Bruskin, co-convener of USLAW*

Kathy Engel, founding Executive Director MADRE, cultural and communications worker

Ray Eurquhart, retired UE 150 volunteer organizer

Bill Fletcher, Jr., President, TransAfrica Forum

Badili Jones, member, SEIU Local 1985

Elly Leary, Vice President and Chief Negotiator, UAW 2324 (retired)

Eric Mann, veteran of CORE, SDS, and UAW

Marsha Steinberg, Field Representative/Organizer SEIU Local 660

Makani Themba-Nixon, Executive Director, The Praxis Project

Jerry Tucker, former member, International Executive Board, UAW

Steve Williams, Executive Director, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER)

* for identification purposes only


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