“The South is a right-to-work region,” says LIUNA Vice President and Ohio Valley & Southern States (OVSS) Regional Manager James C. Hale, referring to the strong anti-union bias that predominates among business and government officials in his region. “But in a time of crisis, union labor proves its worth. First off, we support each other. Second, we have the skills to deal with the dangers and hazards. Third, we’re ready, willing and organized to get to work fast.”

Hale, who has made several trips to the Gulf Coast region from his office in Nashville (TN), knows the immense strain that this disaster has placed on everyone across the South. He also knows what needs to be done.

“The first thing we had to do was help our people restabilize their lives,” he says. “The International put out a call for donations, and, I’m proud to say, members across the country responded. In six weeks, we’ve distributed more than $460,000 in relief checks to 1400 Laborers who were uprooted and displaced by Katrina. Next, we focused on contracts, and, so far, we’ve signed more than a dozen contractors. Now, we’re providing training and a workforce to handle the hazards of the clean-up effort.”

Clean-up is a massive task and presents a number of dangers.

Speaking seven weeks after the storm, LIUNA International Representative Darren Johnson – who, along with colleagues Rob Trenkle, Reno Hammond and Eddie Sachetti of the Southwest Laborers’ District Council, negotiates with contractors and monitors their workforce requirements in light of the evolving, overall situation – reports that only 12 percent of the debris has been removed. “For the most part,” says Johnson, “reconstruction is on hold. The general clean-up is a sizeable operation. It will be the main task for months to come.”

Fortunately, asbestos has not been as large a problem as was first expected, but other environmental hazards – particularly, toxic molds – are a serious concern. Also, in the now-drained ninth ward of New Orleans, which was flooded for weeks with water that was chemically-polluted, residues of heavy metals, such as lead, may be a significant danger to clean-up workers.

Eventually, the reconstruction effort will get into full swing. “We know,” says Johnson, “that several hospitals were completely destroyed. They will have to be rebuilt. An assessment will have to be made about the Superdome and a number of other public facilities. Roads and bridges will need repair. Residential rebuilding will also be big. In the ninth ward alone, 160,000 houses were damaged and 50,000 must be demolished. Thousands of homes were destroyed in Mississippi, too.”

One of the few reconstruction contracts authorized so far by FEMA was for repair of the twin span bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. It went to Boh Brothers, a LIUNA signatory employer, which – relying on union labor – completed the first-phase repair of one span 15 days ahead of schedule.

Most of the union contractors are large outfits, such as Fluor and Bechtel, that were not based in the Gulf Coast area, but have strong national reputations. Originally, when FEMA scrambled to get work moving, it issued a series of “no bid” contracts, but these are now under review and may be modified. Bechtel, at least, is not among these; it bid on all contracts it has received. “Fluor and Bechtel are major players in the clean-up effort,” says Johnson. “Abatetech is under contract and is handling asbestos removal in the city. Another firm that has done things the right way is Holian, which is doing the clean-up at Loew’s Hotel, a hotel built with union pension money.”

One of the biggest problems with the clean-up is the general lack of workers. Tens of thousands of former residents are now living elsewhere, and the shortage is affecting even basic services like grocery stores and gas stations.

LIUNA is actively recruiting workers to fill clean-up positions, running newspaper ads seeking skilled, local workers. OVSS LECET also has an online application process. Respondents are directed to the local unions – # 1177 in Baton Rouge and # 70 in Mobile (AL) – where they fill out applications and are interviewed. If they have the necessary experience and skills, they are sent to employers; if they need training, they are directed to the South Central Laborers Training Center in Livonia.

So far, in Louisiana and Alabama, 2400 new recruits have joined the union, and 14 contractors have signed with LIUNA. “We’ve made a good start,” says Hale, “but we’re still just getting started. Repairing lives and rebuilding in the wake of Katrina is going to keep us busy for a long time to come.”

[Steve Clark]