New Orleans City Council members lambasted Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration on Tuesday (Feb. 28) over years-long delays in the ongoing effort to revive a union to represent city employees, which organizers have blamed in part on stonewalling from Cantrell.

In a committee meeting, council members Helena Moreno and JP Morrell called the delays “ridiculous” and demanded the administration start working cooperatively with the union. And they said they would consider legislative changes to formalize the unionization process and force Cantrell to facilitate it. 

“This constant back and forth has been really unbelievable,” Moreno said. “We seem to have gotten nowhere.”

As Verite reported, attempts to establish a union presence at City Hall have been stymied in recent years by problems dealing with Cantrell, organizers say. 

According to representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which is supposed to represent city workers — the administration has stopped communicating with the union, barred union representatives from accessing parts of City Hall and prohibited the union from representing workers in disciplinary hearings.

Moreno and Morrell told the administration to send a memo to all department heads clarifying that union representatives are allowed to be at worksites to talk to employees during lunch hours and at the end of the day and that the union is allowed to represent workers in disciplinary hearings.

Cantrell’s director of intergovernmental relations, Arthur Walton, agreed to send that memo on Tuesday. 

But the issue appears far from settled. 

Lloyd Permaul, the executive director of AFSCME’s Louisiana-based chapter — which Cantrell previously acknowledged as city employees’ bargaining unit — told Verite that while Tuesday’s meeting should help, he doesn’t know exactly what is going to happen next.

“I don’t know how to tell you how I feel coming out of that meeting,” Permaul told Verite. “I can’t even tell you I’m optimistic with the group I’m working with up there, to be honest with you. I don’t know.”

Permaul said that he hasn’t faced similar issues with the other government agencies he deals with in the state, including in Baton Rouge, Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Parish. 

“She’s the only mayor within this state that hasn’t met with me,” Permaul said.

“We are supposed to be the blue island in a state of red,” Morrell said, referring to New Orleans’ reputation as the most Democratic-leaning part of the state. “But everything I’m hearing is that this city is more hostile to unions than Jefferson Parish is. Do you know how ridiculous that is?”

One city worker and organizer, library employee Lee Abbott, said that the council needs to consider creating new city laws to formalize the process for city worker unionization. 

“​​We call on the council to pass an ordinance that codifies the union recognition process” in city law, Abbott said. “Currently, recognition of a city union is entirely at the whim of a mayor.”

Public sector unions do not follow the same rules and protocols as unions for private workforces. Those private-sector unions fall under the jurisdiction of the National Board of Labor Relations, which investigates allegations of illegal union-busting and oversees unionization votes. 

Some cities and states have laws dictating the recognition process, but Louisiana and New Orleans are not among them. 

Moreno said she agreed such legislation could be necessary. 

“​​I think with everything that happened, we’re likely going to have to go the legislative route,” she said. “Let’s just start working on it. Because the way things are going, I don’t expect this to be resolved very quickly. It’d be a miracle if it does. So we might as well start working on the legislative route.”

Union reps barred from meeting at city worksites

The city’s workforce voted to unionize in 2001 and organized under the Service Employees International Union. Around 2018, however, the union went dormant and hasn’t had a real presence since. 

The disappearance of the union was due to a deal made at the national level to transfer New Orleans city employees from SEIU to AFSCME. But AFSCME has struggled to take the reins and provide real representation. 

After years of trying to work with the city, AFSCME was finally able to get the Cantrell administration in June 2022 to formally acknowledge that AFSCME had taken over for SEIU and that AFSCME had the sole right to represent city workers. 

But the union and the city have yet to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. Before those negotiations begin, Permaul said he wants to run an organizing drive to increase the union’s memberships. During the roughly five years of union dormancy, official membership has dropped to less than 10% of the city workforce. Permaul said organizers want that number to be above 50% when entering contract negotiations. 

But progress on both of those goals — increasing membership and signing a new collective bargaining agreement — has stalled since last summer. In order to sign new members and get their input on what they want in a new union contract, AFSCME has tried to speak to employees at their worksites.

According to Permaul, the directors of four different city departments and agencies have barred AFSCME organizers from accessing those worksites — the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Parks and Parkways, the Department of Public Works and the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. 

“They were told they couldn’t be on the premises even after work,” Permaul said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Permaul said that he was informed that the decision came from City Hall’s 9th floor, which houses the offices of Cantrell’s top deputy, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño. 

“I have no firsthand knowledge of it,” Walton told the council when questioned about why department directors denied access to City Hall. 

Permaul pointed out that he had been in contact with Walton’s office several times to inform them and talk about these very issues. 

Walton said he didn’t know what the barrier to progress on the union was, but seemed unclear about what the union was asking for.

“I guess the issue is, how does the city help facilitate the initial meeting of the union with employees of the city?” Walton said. “And I think that’s outside of our responsibility.”

“This has got to be the most asinine argument I’ve ever heard,” Morrell said. “They don’t need you to facilitate anything. They need you to tell department heads to follow the dang rules and let the union representatives meet with the people they represent.”

Permaul previously told Verite that an “organizing blitz” AFSCME had planned to ramp up union membership had been delayed due to issues accessing City Hall. He said if those barriers can go away, AFSCME is ready to move forward with that immediately. 

“We could have an immediate blitz just like that,” Permaul said with a snap. 

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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...