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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, www.chieforganizer.org, 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
website: www.communitylaborunited.net).

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 built 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 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

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

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

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

October 3, 2005 
Chalabi and Katrina

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a candidate to front for the
Iraqi people  Dr. Ahmad Chalabi. He had been running the Iraqi National
Congress for many years from the United Kingdom. He had a degree from
the University of Chicago. He was connected. Former Secretary of State
Colin Powell was not as certain and neither was the Army. Each in turn
had their own ex-pat Iraqi leaders who they hoped would get traction
once repatriated to home soil.

Make no mistake though. When they were not in Iraqi, but working the
world promoting schemes for liberation armies or business ventures or
this or that, they had friends and sponsors based on the value that
these men and their political formations served to their sponsors, not
for the Iraqi people. They were tools in the hands of others.

Watching the embarrassment of the Bush Administration when it was trying
harder to install provisional and puppet fronts for the invading force,
I would have thought we might have all learned lessons about making sure
as an a priori in these matters that one should be very, very careful
not to anoint someone from afar, who can not operate on the ground. Now
in the middle of the post-Katrina shakeout, I can see that this is not
the case. Progressives seem not to want to learn what the conservatives
have taught us. We want to make sure we learn the lessons the hard way
with our own embarrassment.

In the wake of Katrina everyone and their brother seems to suddenly be
interested in New Orleans and trying to figure out a way to insert
themselves and their issues into the muck that remains of the city. Some
of this is a good thing.

Where it gets hairy is when people try to create representatives for the
people for the purposes of the sponsors and the donor community, just
like we have seen in Iraq.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin tried this strategy slightly with his recent
appointments of a commission, but was simply the usual home cooking from
the Poydras Street business crowd with their favorite front people and
the usual gang of suspects, just a few bigger names.

The most bizarre, and in some ways insulting, question I have been asked
in the wake of Katrina is to identify groups to act as sponsor go
betweens, just as if New Orleans was another foreign country like Iraq.
It is insulting because whether we are talking about almost 10000 family
members of ACORN in New Orleans or a couple of thousand members of Local
100 from the city  we have a base, it just doesn't happen to be in New
Orleans, since it is caught in the diaspora now.

A good example is something called Community Labor United (CLU). This is
a little bitty thing of maybe a dozen or two activists that has convened
meetings off and on for years mostly on Saturdays for a while at Dillard
and last I heard at the Treme Community Center. Mainly it is not labor
but it has a couple of well intentioned AFT teachers that are personally
involved and Curtis Muhammad, who ran a small local union for UNITE for
a couple of years before he retired, was often in attendance. Mostly I
didn't recognize the few other folks there, but some may have been
students or whatever. Curtis is a good guy, but good love him, he
wouldn't be able to really move any thing in New Orleans, because he
doesn't have the base, the weight, the contacts, or the history god love
him. To the best of my knowledge CLU was semi-defunct in recent years
and certainly never had a paid staff or any capacity. Back 5-6 years ago
when it was trying to first get started, we used to send folks to some
of the Saturday meetings because they wanted to support our work and act
as a bridge to other communities, but over the last couple of years that
has also petered out. But now a wave of water moves through New Orleans
and I actually get inquires about whether or not CLU can help in some way.

Huh? What? They are nice people and we count them as friends and allies,
but are we talking about something real there? Of course not! Could they
handle money? No reason to believe that. Do they have a base in New
Orleans? No not whatsoever. Heck, I don't know if they could organize a
two car funeral if they were driving both cars. They have only convened
forums in the past to talk about stuff. If that was needed, they could
do that I suppose, but there are a lot of folks who can do that.

How do Calabi's happen? Just this way! CLU was somehow mentioned by
Naomi Klein in a piece in the Nation. I have no idea what she knows
about New Orleans, but I imagine she was grabbing something out of the
hat. The article gets reprinted some places, and all of a sudden Chalabi
is out and about in New Orleans.

Habitat and Enterprise have had very small, precious operations around
housing in New Orleans which are producing very, very few houses
annually. Best believe they are everywhere now as if they could really
do something in New Orleans. This is a President Bush prop up.

But, a prop up is a prop up, and there will be a day of reckoning.
People will move back to New Orleans. There will be a battle for the
future of the city and people will not be able to be ignored or merely
represented from afar. Their opinions will matter more than the opinion

Hopefully progressives will not be caught with Chalabi on their hands
and learn one lesson from Rumsfeld about this phenomena.

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