Facing South August 26, 2015 Organizing for a true reconstruction in the Gulf Coast: An interview with labor leader Saket Soni by Allie Yee Saket Soni is a national labor leader and an organizer of day laborers, immigrant workers, guest workers and others in New Orleans, the South and the country. He is the executive director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance, which were formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to organize vulnerable workers in the city's reconstruction. Soni, who has written about his own experiences as an undocumented immigrant, has organized several successful, multiracial campaigns since Katrina, including an eight-year campaign that culminated in a $20 million settlement earlier this year for guest workers from India against shipbuilding company Signal International in Mississippi. Signal was convicted in February of human trafficking and other labor violations. The Workers' Center and its affiliates have also achieved significant wins on immigration issues and living wage campaigns and have expanded their work across the country and internationally. Facing South recently caught up with Soni to get his take on progress made since Katrina and lessons learned since the storm hit the Gulf Coast 10 years ago this week. This interview has been edited for clarity. What brought you to the Gulf Coast after Katrina in 2005? When Katrina hit, I was a community organizer in Chicago. I was knocking on doors and talking to low-income renters in Chicago's South Side … When the levees broke, I remember it shattering the myth that people were doing OK. I was just trying to make sense of how a disaster like that could happen in the United States and how it could be followed by such extraordinary inaction.

Two months after completing a 22-year stint in a Louisiana prison, Robert Benjamin is ready to use his newly attained freedom to reach out to young people and encourage them to choose a better path than the one that led him to jail. “I was a renegade, but I’ve reformed, reframed, repented and redeemed myself,” Benjamin told the audience at a public hearing Wednesday at the Housing Authority of New Orleans. The one thing standing in his way, Benjamin said, is finding a stable place to live. He’s living temporarily in a nursing home, unsure how to move forward with his desire to share an apartment with his sister at Marrero Commons, the former B.W. Cooper Housing Development.

The People Who Rebuilt New Orleans Are Still Waiting to Get Paid

Estimates of the wages pilfered from construction workers after Hurricane Katrina run to the tens of millions of dollars.

August 17, 2015
Alexander Zaitchik has written for The New Republic, The Nation, Salon, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones. He lives in New Orleans.
The parking lot of Lowe’s Home Improvement in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans is much like the parking lot of other big-box building-supply stores across the country. The curb near the exit is what Latino day laborers call anesquina, or “corner,” where they congregate and wait for contractors with drywalls to install, or suburban dads with junk that needs hauling. Beginning at dawn, people with jobs of all sizes drive up to these corners and select workers to perform difficult manual labor for below minimum wage, or specialized work for as much as $15 an hour. One humid evening in May around sunset, a few dozen men, most of them from Honduras and Mexico, are cracking beers and socializing around quitting time. A smaller group squats around a dusk-lit game of small-stakes craps.
Lurking on the outskirts of the game and sipping a soda is David Solomon Vasquez, an ebullient 24-year-old Honduran wearing a Dodgers cap. Vasquez has been coming to this corner since the age of 14, when he joined thousands of other Latino workers in a mass migration to the city in the roiling wake of the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm when it hit the Big Easy. Asked about his decade in New Orleans, Vasquez first recalls the horrors of the early days, when the detritus he removed from homes included water-bloated corpses. “Even months later, you’d find a lot of bodies,” says Vasquez. “In one attic we found an old lady and a young boy, her grandson. They were trying to escape the water, but it got them. Even after they removed the bodies, the smell stayed for days.”
The hanging stench of death proved a temporary aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans. Vasquez goes on to describe a more enduring feature of life for those who cleaned up and then rebuilt the Crescent City: rampant wage theft. Early in his tenure here, Vasquez learned that contractors could not be trusted like the contractors in Nevada, his first stop after leaving home. As the 10th anniversary of Katrina approached, Vasquez rattles off stories of employers cheating him out of his wages. Many of these stories involve threats of violence, including one from just the month before.

A Movement Lab in New Orleans

The 10-year fight for a just recovery from Hurricane Katrina has driven a surge in innovative, progressive organizing.

The evening of Wednesday, May 20, was a night like any other 
in a town that, despite its near-demise a decade ago, persists as this country’s beating heart of creative chaos. By 6:30, the bars on Frenchmen Street were clinking to life. Around the city, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, the TBC Brass Band, and Delfeayo Marsalis were among the world-class musicians preparing for weekly gigs. Tourists were already filling the strip clubs and daiquiri shops of Bourbon Street and the trendy restaurants of the recently gentrified Bywater neighborhood. And in Mid-City, in front of the First Grace United Methodist Church, a couple of women stood beside tables selling tacos and mondongo (pork-belly soup) to an intergenerational mix of Latino families. There was no chanting at the BreakOUT meeting just over a mile away, in a former produce warehouse that is now a collection of artists’ studios and offices, but there was laughter. BreakOUT is an LGBTQ criminal-justice reform organization, and on this evening, a dozen transgender and gender-nonconforming young people were working and gossiping, creating a safe space behind a door with a welcome mat that read: come back with a warrant. The room felt like a mix of social club and office. A meeting started with a countdown exercise that looked like a free-form dance party, but soon those gathered got down to the business of assigning tasks for an event on the coming weekend. “Sometimes, I’ll just be so blown away to see how strong these youth are and how they constantly just keep fighting,” says Milan Nicole Sherry, 24, one of BreakOUT’s founding members and now a staffer. “They don’t take no for an answer.”

‘Living wage’ ordinance approved by New Orleans City Council to address worsening inequality Jeff Adelson jadelson@theadvocate.com August 07, 2015 Anyone working for a company that gets significant contracts or subsidies from city government in New Orleans will have to be paid at least $10.55 an hour starting next year. City Council members unanimously approved a “living wage” ordinance for those workers on Thursday, couching the measure as a blow against inequality and a moral duty for the city to pay its residents a decent salary and to put employees performing public functions through private companies on a more equal footing with their government counterparts. “I will not condone city funds going to pay poverty wages,” said Councilman Jared Brossett, the measure’s lead sponsor. While the measure was cheered as a significant step forward by workers’ advocacy organizations — particularly in light of a state law barring the city from setting a minimum wage for all workers — many also argued that in a city with a rising cost of living and deeply entrenched poverty, the floor set by the council was still not high enough to provide for basic needs. “Don’t let this be the final iteration of this particular document,” Norris Henderson said. The council approved the measure by a 6-0 vote, with Councilwoman Stacy Head absent. The ordinance requires companies with city contracts worth $25,000 or more to pay their workers at least $10.55 an hour and provide them with at least one week of paid leave each year. Companies that receive subsidies from the city — such as tax breaks, direct assistance or reduced rents — worth $100,000 or more in a 12-month period would face the same requirements and would also have to continue to pay that rate for 10 years from the date of the agreement or from their final payment by the city, whichever was later. The major exception would be people enrolled in job training programs targeted at youths that are sponsored by the city.

New Orleans council approves living wage ordinance

Starting January 1, $10.55 will be the minimum wage for certain companies that do business with the City of New Orleans, the result of a unanimous vote by the City Council Thursday (Aug. 6) to approve a so-called living wage ordinance.
The measure was heralded by advocates and workers alike, though nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting said that $10.55 is not truly a living wage in New Orleans. "It's personal to me," said Harold Brooks, a construction worker for a nonprofit that gets city money. "I live in this city too, but I have to work two or three jobs to take care of my kids and grand kids. "I want to be able to go to a Saints game. I want to be able to take a day off to enjoy Mardi Gras. I should be able to live in and enjoy this city that I live in." A Loyola University researcher said that a single-parent would need about $22 per hour to live a reasonable life in New Orleans. Two working parents would need at least $13, she said. Councilman Jared Brossett, who sponsored the measure and shepherded it through eight months of revisions and negotiations with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, acknowledged that $10.55 wasn't enough. Nevertheless, he said, it's better than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which, if it had kept up with inflation, also be at $10.55 by now. "I won't accept city funds going to pay poverty wages", he said. "I want New Orleans not to just be a great place to visit, but also a place to live and raise a family at any income level."