New Orleans City Hall. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein/Verite

The union that represented hundreds of New Orleans city workers quietly disappeared about five years ago, effectively leaving City Hall employees without any representation. Now, there is a fight to revive it.

It hasn’t been easy. An ad hoc organization made up of city employees working over the past three years to organize their coworkers say they’ve faced roadblocks, both from Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the national union that’s supposed to represent them. 

They argue that the union is important not only for the more than 4,000 people employed by the city and city-connected agencies, but for everyone who lives in New Orleans. The city has struggled in recent years to fill vital jobs as staffers leave for greener pastures, making it harder for New Orleans to maintain basic services. Emergency Medical Services, for example, currently has a 33 percent staffing shortage.

“I’ve been at New Orleans EMS for four and a half years at this point and I’m one of the older people here,” EMS worker and organizer Leslie Bean said. “A lot of people have given up, quite frankly, but they’re willing to give [unionization] a shot.”

New Orleans city employees voted to unionize in 2001, joining a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union. But in 2018, after years of declining influence, SEIU handed off the city employees to a separate group, one that made little progress signing up members or negotiating with the city.

In June, Mayor LaToya Cantrell signed an agreement with the union that replaced SEIU — a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — to negotiate for a collective bargaining agreement for city workers, excluding the police and fire departments, which already have representation.

But since June, the Cantrell administration has cut off communication with AFSCME, barred it from accessing parts of City Hall and stalled progress toward real representation, according to several workers, organizers and City Councilwoman Helena Moreno’s office. 

“They’re giving me the runaround,” said Lloyd Permaul, executive director of AFSCME Council 17, which covers Louisiana and Arkansas. “She’s the only mayor in this state that I haven’t met for the workers we cover.”

Moreno’s chief of staff, Andrew Tuozollo, told Verite that if things continue to stall, the council will consider calling a special hearing to force the issue. Cantrell’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

The ultimate goal is to negotiate and sign a collective bargaining agreement with Cantrell to lay out working conditions and the right of the union to advocate for their members. But to get credibility at the bargaining table, the union has to increase membership, which has fallen to less than 10 percent of the city workforce during the past five years of absent representation. 

“She’s the only mayor in this state that I haven’t met for the workers we cover.”

Lloyd Permaul, AFSCME Council 17

Some city employee organizers say they are losing faith that AFSCME is actually committed to the effort. A promised organizing “blitz” has been delayed. And Permaul has been unable to arrange a sit-down with Cantrell despite trying for more than two years.

“If you can’t get a meeting with the mayor in two years, I’m sorry but that dog don’t hunt,” organizer Steve Price said to Permaul during a tense meeting last February. (Verite obtained a recording of the meeting.)

Price, a former city IT worker who recently left for a better-paying job in the private sector, is an organizer with the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee, a group of employees from several city departments — not officially associated with AFSCME — that sprung up in 2020 in the vacuum left by SEIU. 

Several Organizing Committee leaders told Verite that they had become frustrated with AFSCME. They said while the union has fought to ensure it maintains the sole right to bargain on behalf of city workers, it refuses to dedicate the necessary resources to do so.

“The mistrust has been so deep,” Price told Verite in an interview. “Every time it was convenient for [Permaul], he said AFSCME claimed us without question. But the second we needed anything from him as workers, he didn’t owe us a goddamn thing. That was always the problem.”

‘I want to have an ambulance that will work’

Price still lives in New Orleans and is supporting the Organizing Committee effort. But he left his job with the city in December after seven years because of working conditions that, he said, might have been alleviated if the workers had a functioning union. 

“The brain drain is insane because the money is not keeping up,” Price said. 

The city has struggled to retain and hire workers in recent years, leading to labor shortages in some of the most vital city departments. Recent figures from the Cantrell administration show the city is on pace to spend only 57 percent of the general fund dollars it has budgeted for personnel costs, according to a report released this week. 

Organizers told Verite that the issue was about more than money. All of the workers that spoke to Verite agreed that along with better pay and benefits, workers wanted dignity and the ability to change things for the better. 

“It’s a culture of not listening to people actually doing the work,” Price said. “My parents were in teachers unions there and the old saying there was, ‘teachers’ working conditions are students’ living conditions.’ Well, city workers’ working conditions are everyone’s living conditions.

“As a person who lives here, even if I don’t work for the city anymore, if I have a heart attack, I want to have an ambulance that will work,” Price said. 

Losing SEIU

City employees first voted to unionize under then-Mayor Marc Morial. At the time, the union covered roughly 1,600 workers. 

The union went dormant in 2018, but not because of anything that happened with New Orleans. The problem arose in Washington D.C., where a deal was made to transfer city workers from one union to another.

“SEIU never asked city workers when they made the deal with AFSCME,” Price said. “At no point was the opinion of who should represent city workers ever put to the workers.”

Workers said they stopped seeing any real union representation when those negotiations started in 2018. The transfer wasn’t formally ratified until 2020. During that time, membership in the city workers dropped to just 159 members, a fraction of the city workforce. 

In the absence of their longtime union, some city workers began to organize on their own, creating the foundations of what would become the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee. Workers said that their organizing was spurred in part by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and a Cantrell administration proposal that would have cut the New Orleans Public Library’s budget by roughly 40 percent.

Those workers were successful in getting worker protections during COVID-19 and getting voters to reject Cantrell’s library proposal. They continued to organize from there, including a successful campaign to get the city to raise the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour in 2021.

Organizers started hosting weekly organizing meetings, holding rallies and working to bring more employees on board with the idea of restarting the union. Through all of that, AFSCME was nowhere to be found, organizers said, even though more than a hundred employees were still paying monthly dues. Price estimated that since January 2020, workers have paid roughly $100,000 in union dues. 

“AFSCME was around but wasn’t there for us during the library campaign, wasn’t there for us during the really dark days of the pandemic,” New Orleans Public Library employee Lee Abbott told Verite. “So we feel like you’re taking our money, but you weren’t there when we needed you and we had to do this on our own. And that’s something that AFSCME will really have to answer.”

Organizing Committee members said that despite numerous attempts, AFSCME has refused to work with them. They said they were only able to get a meeting with Permaul early last year due to the intervention of Robert “Tiger” Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO. 

During the meeting, Organizing Committee leaders accused Permaul of displaying a severe lack of engagement and communication with workers. 

“I don’t blame y’all,” Hammond said at the February 2022 meeting. “I would be, excuse my French, pissed off. I would be astounded that I couldn’t get representation when I’m paying dues. I think it stinks.”

Organizing Committee leaders said they had considered severing ties with AFSCME and starting a new union. But they said there were myriad issues trying to attract a new major union or forming an independent local union with no association to a parent group. The Organizing Committee ultimately decided that the best and quickest way forward was to try to work with AFSCME. 

That decision was made in part because AFSCME was finally able to get the Cantrell administration to sign a memorandum of understanding that recognized that AFSCME had replaced SEIU as the bargaining agent of the city union. It was signed in June 2022, more than two years after the union was transferred from SEIU to AFSCME. 

“AFSCME was around but wasn’t there for us during the library campaign, wasn’t there for us during the really dark days of the pandemic.”

Lee Abbott, New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee

Organizing Committee members said they were never informed about the agreement. 

“They were keeping us out of the loop on this,” Abbott said. “They never actually announced that they got the MOU signed. We found out through a public records request.”

Organizing Committee organizers said that they want to work with AFSCME to get things moving, but that communication with workers has remained poor. 

Tuozzolo, Moreno’s chief of staff, agreed. 

“For months it just seems like there’s been a lack of engagement on behalf of the administration,” Tuozollo said. “So they sign a piece of paper, but nothing has been done to provide access to workers and the next stage to engage in the bargaining process.”

‘You want to beef up your numbers’

A collective bargaining agreement could cover a wide range of issues, including how the union will function, working conditions and required meetings for upper management to listen to worker complaints. 

But things like pay, working hours and leave likely wouldn’t be covered. Under state law, those issues are decided by the Civil Service Commission, an independent board that acts as a human resources department for most city workers. Some workers said that at best, the commission acts as an arbiter between the administration and workers, not as a representative of workers.

So while a collective bargaining agreement with the city likely couldn’t cover items such as mandatory annual raises, workers say a union could help organize the workforce to advocate to civil service and lean on the mayor and City Council to pressure the commission. 

But before sitting down at the bargaining table, organizers said they need to increase the number of dues-paying members — both to find out what worker priorities are and to give legitimacy to the unionization effort.

Permaul said that technically, they could begin negotiating now, but he said low participation hurts their credibility.

“You want to beef up your numbers,” Permaul said. “You don’t want to go to the bargaining table if you have a potential of as many as 1700 city workers in New Orleans and you only have 120 [dues paying members].”

But getting those numbers up won’t be a simple task, and Organizing Committee leaders say that AFSCME isn’t putting in the resources required to do it. AFSCME had promised city workers it would bring in national resources for organizing “blitz” to sign up more workers. But in October, AFSCME said the effort was being delayed, according to a text message obtained by Verite.

Permaul blamed the city for that. He said the blitz was delayed because AFSCME has been barred from some worksites and can’t organize effectively. He said that in late 2022, the Cantrell administration said AFSCME organizers were no longer allowed to visit two major city departments: Sanitation and Parks and Parkways. 

“The only reason the blitz didn’t take place is because they would not give us access,” Permaul said.

He said he’s been trying to talk to the Cantrell administration to fix the problems, but that he simply isn’t hearing back. He added that he was working with Moreno’s office to push things forward, but that if the situation continued, he would consider legal action against the administration or a larger pressure campaign.

“I thought everything was fine communicating with the mayor’s office until the administration just decided they’re not going to communicate anymore,” he said.

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...