Saturday, September 10, 2005

Time for the Unions to Get Involved

What worries me most at this point in the time line of the multiple disasters striking the Gulf Coast is what will happen to the people from New Orleans and other Gulf Coast states who have been evacuated to places all over the country.

Many of them were employed in businesses in, say New Orleans, that no longer exist, and probably won't be back. Their homes have been destroyed or damaged to the point that the few inhabitants who actually owned the homes couldn't possibly afford the repairs. Those who rented have no assurances that there will be affordable housing built to replace those homes lost. They're hundreds of miles from home and from their personal networks and personal papers, many without any money, and they have to know that in a couple of weeks the story du jour will focus the American public's attention elsewhere. What then?

I'm hopeful that members of Congress are thinking beyond the reconstruction of infrastructure and levees to consider the rebuilding of lives at this point, but such considerations don't really give great photo ops, so maybe they need a reminder that the crisis will not be over for many of the refugees in two weeks' time.

I've thought about a few things that might be helpful. I'm not going to get too deeply on what the federal government can do to facilitate these people's transitions to a new life because, frankly, the federal government has shown it really has no idea how to deal with real people in real crisis. It's clear that the federal government does have a crucial role to play, but it will be up to other levels of government and the public at large to educate them on this. At any rate, here are a few brief suggestions to get the ball rolling, and this time around they deal with one sector of the economic world that might well benefit from taking the lead in this tragedy.


In the recent past, union membership has declined to the point that they now represents only 12-17% of the workforce (depending on whose numbers one uses). Still, the unions are crucial in such areas as the construction trades and the service employees arenas. Those refugees who are union members should be given automatic "travel cards" in whatever area they have been relocated to and should be entitled to register at the local union hiring halls. Construction still appears to be active in most areas of the country, so these workers may be able to find fairly quick, if short term, work.

Those who are not union members but who are capable of working in whatever area there is a union force should be offered apprenticeships or memberships with initiation and dues deferred until the refugee has settled in. Training programs should be expanded to make such opportunities available to all who are willing to go through them and then to proceed with normal union requirements. Those programs might also work with other agencies (generic term) to provide child care and such other assistance as needed, or at least educate the workers in what is available.

And the unions should not be shy about horning into the debate about what next in the halls of Congress and the local state houses. There is no reason why they should not demand a seat at the table when such issues as city planning for affordable housing and contract requirements are being discussed.

I'm not suggesting that the unions take over the process, merely that they begin returning to their roots of being the voice of the working American. They used to be pretty good at that. I think now is the time for them to reprise that skill.


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