First Night

New Orleans     Two months after the Katrina we were finally able to make our way back down to New Orleans and spend a night in our own home in our own bed for the first time on Saturday night.

I went by the rally called by ACORN, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, the NAACP, and others on the capital steps. About 1000 people made it. Beulah Labostrie, Louisiana ACORN’s long time president was one of the opening speakers along with Vernon Bolden, the ex-president of SEIU Local 100. Governor Blanco was speaking when I arrived and promising that she would continue to play a role in trying to protect jobs and labor in the reconstruction of New Orleans. She detailed her role in fight to win back Davis-Bacon. I saw a number of people in the crowd while Jesse Jackson was speaking. Talked to Oliver Thomas, President of the New Orleans City Council, about who was willing to run for Mayor and let Ray Nagin go back to being a businessman. Ken Johnson, Southern Regional Director of the AFL-CIO was there along with Terese Bouey from the AFL Organizing Department — old friends who are welcome in Louisiana again, since both have worked and lived here before for many years. I was due in New Orleans, so I left as Jesse led people in the final chant. Looked like Al Sharpton standing along side of him as I walked across the Huey’s statue.

Super Scott and his crew had managed to finish all but the shouting on my roof before I got there. I met him at my folks’ place. The refrigerator needed to be pulled, but of course he got it done before I got there. A crew had already stripped my folks’ roof and was busy papering it and laying out the shingles. We walked down the street to the house of one of the neighbor ladies that my dad has watched over for years. The ceiling had dropped down in the living room, but that was about the worst of it from the looks of it. It was a beautiful New Orleans fall day. Clear, blue with a touch of coolness, but only a hint in mid-afternoon, which made it a good day for roofing and the rest of the work that demanded to be done everywhere one looked. We were making progress it seemed.

Even without the hurricane a house without people for two months has a laundry list of “to do’s” everywhere you look, but add a hurricane and it’s a devil’s brew. Took down the boards securing the shutters finally declaring hurricane season over by damn! Replaced light bulbs that had been burned out, and then mopped and scrubbed kitchen, bathrooms, tubs, and tried to peel some layers of dirt off the old house. Picked up glass left from broken windows here and there before watching a small bobcat pull up the giant crepe myrtle stump and replant it in the street in front of the house. Leave at this — it was not hard to keep busy.

Before dark we took Scott along on a cruise to see about some apartments we heard that were going on the market off of Treme that might have worked, but on closer inspection seemed wildly overpriced. We were not quite ready for the “new” New Orleans. Driving back through the French Quarter there seemed to be some life on the back streets. We stopped in the Marigny at Schiro’s, one of the few restaurants open on a limited “post-Katrina” menu as they called it served up in Styrofoam containers with plastic forks and pretty reasonable prices. We visited with the fellas at the next table who had been messing with their flooded house. He had been the maitre de at the New Orleans Country Club, which took 8 feet of water from the 17th Street Canal. He said they were rebuilding. He was renting in Houston and waiting; confident his job would be there. His son was with him and was staying in the Marriott courtesy of Cox Cable, which was also trying to get hooked up again. We all marveled at how well Houston had stepped up in dealing with evacuees compared to everywhere else in the country.

We were still working in the house at 8:30 pm when the lights started to flicker. 5 minutes later the flickering stopped because power shut down completely at our house and others connected to the same route of the wires from the pole. This was not the grid, because the neighboring houses on both sides were lit up. So was the library on Alvar Street, but next door the old Frey’s plant was dark. Finally at 9:00 pm we faced the facts of camping without a lantern and turned in for the night. Dawn found the lights still off though the sun was peeking through the houses since daylight savings was over. Running my old route in Bywater was a different experience after a two-month hiatus. There were new obstacles where the streets had not been able to quite keep up with the heavy equipment moving along them. Mainly, one jogged with lively step around the smells that were a constant assault. It was easy enough to give a wide berth to the refrigerators standing along the curb as silent soldiers guarding against the storm. The surprises that laid in wait that were unavoidable were the number of houses where no one had yet returned after two months. The stench there was real and trapped inside the windows still boarded against the storm in many cases. It seemed like maybe half of the Bywater and the piece of Marigny that I ran through had not yet returned.

Along Press Street at the spot where Plessey refused to sit any differently in the train, one mystery was solved from my last visit. Turned out the National Guard had commandeered NOCCA — the performing arts high school along the tracks and the River — and had sheltered the crews of a dozen fire trucks there just as Francis Seelos Parish, the old St. Vincent’s DePaul behind our old house had. This was a different city.

At 8:30 am I called Super Scott on the job site. I had heard him around 5 in the morning on the street talking to someone. With the windows broken and still wide open to the street, it is hard to miss much activity. I wondered if he remembered about the change in time, and it turned out that that one non-essential fact had indeed escaped him. When I asked Super Scott about the fact that the electricity had been off at the house for 12 hours and was that usual? He quickly replied, “Oh, sure!” Seems there are a lot of repairs still done at nights, and frequently in three weeks since we got power the lights will be shut down in my house or over in where he is staying at Monique’s place.

My first thought was of traveling through the Dominican Republic and other countries where electricity was not something one every really took for granted. It was obvious, but with the excitement of finally coming home for one night, I had not fully focused on the fact that we were now living in a patch of the third world.

Basic services no longer are truly real here now. At either end of my property line I have two giant 5-foot high dumps of all manner of materials, trees, roofing remains, carpet pieces, and just plan old garbage. I just walk to the porch and fling another bag to the right or the left depending on how I feel at the moment. Sometime during the week a dump truck and a tractor will scoop it up and take it out.

Around 10 AM the lights came back on, while I was taking a shower in the dark. Good timing. Making do the best we can.

I have to hurry up and finish this before it gets too late and the lights go out again. If they do, we’re leaving for Baton Rouge before the curfew. If the lights stay on, we’ll leave at dawn.

It is going to be a long journey for New Orleans to find its way back to 21st Century America.

October 30, 2005

Governor Kathleen Blanco Speaks
Beulah Laboistrie of Louisiana ACORN sitting to the right of Sibal Holt, president of the La AFL-CIO. Beulah is sitting in front of Congressman William Jefferson from New Orleans and all are listening as Governor Kathleen Blanco speaks in the breeze.
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Wal-Mart Don’t Like Ugly!

Baton Rouge     Wal-Mart had been on a charm offensive since Hurricane Katrina trying to prove to an increasingly doubtful public that it was about something more than cutting prices and pinching pennies at the expense of its workers. Over the last week they have been trying to weather a firestorm initiated by the release of an internal memo from the head of Human Resources that left way too little to the imagination.

We had seen the memo more than a week ago as it started to circulate secretly among those most attuned to the goings and comings of the company. Wal-Mart Watch had shared the memo with me confidentially to see if I thought Wal-Mart workers would be interested in talking about the contents of the document. I did not need to read much to know this was hot and that workers would be in shock and awe when they were finally allowed to take a look at the way the company was spinning their benefits and the very future of their employment. Hinting to our organizing staff with the Wal-Mart Workers Association (www.walmartwork.org), they could hardly wait to see what we had.

Wal-Mart Watch had no idea how the memo had come to them, but they knew they had something here. They also thought they had a couple of weeks to roll it out, before the company started responding and implementing the memo. They wanted us to see if we would pull together a dozen workers to talk publicly about the memo while reading it for the first time. This was candy! We were ready to move.

So was the company it turned out. They spun the memo out on the upside. HR had argued that they needed to make some “strategic investments” to make it appear that they were improving some parts of their health coverage, even while increasing deductibles and changing the workforce. Wal-Mart Watch ended up just mass blasting the memo out everywhere they could and counting on the big papers to run with the story, which many of them did.

There was a lot to digest when you read the memo. (see the memo on www.walmartwork.org) First, one is amazed that as crummy as much of the health plan is, the price tag given the size of the company is still in the billions. These are not easy problems when we have no real national health insurance program in the country for working people. Secondly, Wal-Mart really does not like its workers in any real way. There are comments about the fact that they are old and fat, and this cost them money. They do not come out and say that they will be pushing out everyone who fits this profile, but the message seems unmistakable. This is especially the case when one sees that they want to push even more workers from full to part time positions. We have already been at the bleeding edge of this shift over the last several months as Bentonville computers have unilaterally pushed huge numbers of workers in Florida that we know out of jobs and on to supplemental unemployment benefits.

One could see in the memo some honesty on other fronts as well. Wal-Mart knows it is costing the public money because its wage scale and paltry benefits push people onto public programs. They also know they have critics high and low and clearly and not impervious to this — no matter what their culture has traditionally been — and some of these “revisions” are meant to move in these areas.

There seems little question as one peeks inside the company through the window of this memo that this is now Fort Wal-Mart and their workers and customers are hostile forces in a critical important alliance, which could push the company in directions that are outside of their happy face.

October 29, 2005

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