An Open Letter to the Labor Movement Regarding Katrina:
October 19, 2005

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

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 American.  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 the programs of the two new

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' (For full text
see,, blog entry 'Chalabi and
Katrina, October 3rd) that disparages an organization,
Community Labor United, and one of its principle
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 30-October 1st, with more than 100
participants from  prisoner's 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,
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

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

1. Confront racism within our movement.  White leaders, even those with a

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, 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, but which does not fit the union template, has
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 had 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 even to question 'if they could organize a two car
funeral if they were driving both cars.' (see 'Chalabi
and Katrina') This disrespect fails to on one hand to
acknowledge that the base of the labor movement (and
with it dues dollars) and 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 good terms with many organizers from
that group. We cannot believe that such a provocative
and destructive letter was circulated by Wade 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*
Nemesio Domingo, Chair, LELO
Kathy Engel, founding Executive Director MADRE*, cultural and communications worker
Ray Eurquhart, Retired UE 150 volunteer organizer
Bill Fletcher, Jr., President, TransAfrica Forum
Bill Gallegos, Executive Director, Communities for a Better Environment
Stan Goff, Writer-Activist
Badili Jones, member SEIU Local 1985
Hany Khalil, Organizing Coordinator, United for Peace and Justice*
Elly Leary, Vice President and Chief Negotiator, UAW 2324 (retired)
Judith LeBlanc, National Co-Chair, United for Peace and Justice*
Charles Lester, Director of Programs and Operations, United Domestic Workers of America/AFSCME, NUHHCE
Eric Mann, veteran of CORE, SDS, and UAW
John McCarthy, member TWU Local 100
Charlene Mitchell, National Co-chair Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, National Coordinator, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq*
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)
Michael Yates
* for identification purposes only