Big Labor and Big Dollars

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues Labor Organizing

New Orleans      John Sweeney was in town again.  Last time he was here he told me the investment funds were going to commit one billion big bucks to the recovery.  The number sweated down over the last 4-5 weeks to $700 million by the time his picture was in front of the business page with newly re-elected Mayor Ray Nagin. 

It was confusing because it seemed to say housing and not say housing at the same time.  There was talk of a partnership with Catholic Charities to rebuild their properties as the financier, which would be good, but would not be new housing.  There was talk of building a huge 1000+ room convention hotel.  Steve Coyle of the investment fund said his door was open for proposals.  I’m sure he will get some. 

Carlton Brown, a well respected developer from New York who works with unions extensively and has a reputation for “green” work as well had told me earlier in the week he was trying to partner with the AFL funds to build between 400 and 1000 units of “worker” housing on Rampart in the Central Business District, but was unsure if it was all going to come together.  The AFL funds joined with some non-profits to try and see if they could get 200 properties on the adjudicated property list (which to non-New Orleanians means the tax delinquent and abandoned properties that are available — an old ACORN victory!).  Insiders say of the total amount there is really on $100 million for actual housing in this play. 

But, hey, they are stepping up where others have not been willing to do so yet, so hats off to John Sweeney for their leadership here whether it’s 15 cents or 100 million or a billion or whatever!  Let’s see some private interests, bankers, bs-ers, and others match that.

Of course this is New Orleans so the Times-Picayune reporter on the story, Jaquetta White, called me to ask if I thought the AFL investment would mean a boost to union organizing in this area.   Let no good deed go unpunished!  I told her, “I wish!”  In reality I also had to tell her that I doubted it, since in the same day’s paper, Una Andersen, of the New Orleans school board offered her opinion that collective bargaining was now passe in post-Katrina New Orleans as her rationalization for leading the fight to kill the teachers contract and administer the last punch below the belt to what had been the largest union in New Orleans the day before the storm.  At the end of the day the school board doesn’t seem to care that they had a $10 million joint benefits fund with the teachers of UTNO/AFT.  Their common interests and finances won’t save the union and its members from the ideology of break back and take back.

The UAW in convention this week voted $60 million of their strike fund over 4 years for organizing, which almost seems too little too late, as this once vaunted organization was also having to break it to its members that they are going to have to accept concessions and more membership losses.  Their strike fund has close to a billion dollars sitting in the bank. 

The UAW and the AFL are great institutions with hallowed traditions and storied accomplishments.  In the past they were big labor and it meant something.  Now they are big money and it means little.

I would have loved to have heard both of them pledge that they were putting 2 billion into organizing and throwing the dice and everything they had at saving the day in concert with the vast millions of the unorganized desperate for a union.  Probably would have breached their fiduciary responsibilities.  God knows when they say the final rites over shrinking organizations, make sure they are remembered for having been good accountants and minders of the monies, rather than having led the way to saving the store and bring in the members in the future.

June 17, 2006

John Sweeney