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

New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday (Feb. 28) to ask the Cantrell administration why a years-long effort to reestablish a union for City Hall workers has failed to produce results. As Verite reported earlier this month, the process has stalled in part due to Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s refusal to meet with union representatives and her decision to bar them from parts of City Hall, according to organizers for city workers.

“We want to know what the barriers are to representation and organizing,” Moreno told Verite in a statement. “It’s really simple: does the Cantrell administration intend to directly engage with the recognized employee union representatives and cease their attempts to block organizing and collective bargaining on-site?”

Moreno said she plans to question representatives from the Cantrell administration and hear a presentation from the national union that is supposed to represent city workers — a chapter of the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees. 

Cantrell’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

The current unionization effort would cover a wide swath of the city’s roughly 4,000-person workforce, excluding the police and fire departments, which already have their own representation. 

Organizers argue that unionization is vital not only for city employees, but anyone living in New Orleans. They say that poor working conditions and the lack of input from city workers has contributed to the city’s problem maintaining basic city services. The city currently has staff shortages across the board.

Aaron Mischler, president of the local fire fighters union, told Verite he supported the effort to unionize City Hall and would be present at Tuesday’s meeting. He said that a union can improve city services not only by retaining workers, but by giving them a seat at the table to improve the way their department functions.

“We’re part of the conversations, where we can say from the boots on the ground what’s working, what’s not working, how our membership feels about certain things,” Mischler said. “We can voice those things. Not just complain, but give solutions.”

One goal of the unionization effort is to negotiate a collective bargaining with the administration. Any such agreement for city workers likely wouldn’t cover things like pay, working hours and leave. 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.

But Mischler said that a union is still vital for pay issues. He said that it allows the workforce to better organize and strategize. He added that Civil Service Commission decisions are often greatly influenced by the opinions of the mayor and City Council. 

“Civil Service wants the easiest route possible,” Mischler said. “They want you, the city and your department administration, they want everyone on the same page. If you can have everything ready when you go to Civil Service and packaged where everyone agrees, it makes passage a whole lot easier when everyone’s on the same page.” 

Reviving the union

The current effort is not to form a new union, but to restart one that has gone dormant in recent years. City Hall employees once had an active union after a majority of workers voted to unionize in 2001 and joined a local chapter of Service Employees International Union. 

But after years of declining influence, the union virtually disappeared around 2018, when SEIU made an agreement at the national level to transfer New Orleans City Hall workers from SEIU to AFSCME

Since the transfer, AFSCME has made little progress establishing its presence and providing representation to workers. During the years of absence, the number of dues-paying union members plummeted to less than 10 percent of the city workforce. The union hasn’t signed a collective bargaining agreement with the city since 2015. 

Over the past two years, AFSCME has been working to sign a new agreement with the city. To give them legitimacy at the negotiating table, the union wants to increase the number of dues-paying union members to over 50% of the workforce. Then they will need the Cantrell administration to engage in contract negotiations.

But they’ve hit some road blocks. Lloyd Permaul — executive director of AFSCME Council 17, which covers Louisiana and Arkansas — told Verite this month that he hasn’t been able to meet with Cantrell yet despite multiple requests over the past two years. 

“They indicated that we’re on the backburner,” he said.

AFSCME found some success last year when it was able to get the Cantrell administration to formally recognize that AFSCME had taken over for SEIU, and that AFSCME had the right to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. 

But since then, according to Permaul, the administration has barred AFSCME from accessing parts of City Hall, including the departments of Sanitation and Parks and Parkways. He said worksite access is vital to getting employees to sign union cards and that an “organizing blitz” AFSCME had planned to beef up union membership has been put on hold until they can get access to all worksites. 

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

Moreno said she wants to understand where the Cantrell administration stands on the issue and whether it’s committed to making progress toward real union representation.

“We’ve been engaging on this issue for more than a year in an attempt to allow employees to properly organize and be recognized,” Moreno said in her statement. “The public deserves to know whether the administration intends to recognize the employees or whether their delays mean that their stance on this issue has changed.”

Meanwhile, on top of the issues with Cantrell, some city workers have doubts about AFSCME’s commitment to the effort. During the union’s prolonged dormancy, a group of employees organized an ad hoc group to organize their coworkers on their own called the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee. 

Committee organizers told Verite this month that they have become increasingly frustrated with AFSCME. Some said that while they understand AFSCME has hit roadblocks with the Cantrell administration, they don’t think AFSCME has fought hard enough to break through them. Lee Abbott, an organizer and public library employee, is one of those frustrated organizers.

“They haven’t really fought,” Abbott said. “They need good membership to have a strong hand in bargaining. But whether AFSCME will put in the resources to do that is an open question.”

Another issue that Abbott and other organizers have is the lack of engagement between AFSCME and local city workers. They say despite numerous attempts, AFSCME has refused to work with the organizing committee, even though they had already made organizing inroads.

Mischler, the firefighter union president, said that working alongside local employees was vital to any unionization effort.

“Any labor organization, you have to have local people, you have to have organization and you have to have engagement,” he said. 

Permaul did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

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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...