Following accusations that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has frozen out City Hall union organizers, New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno plans to introduce an ordinance to codify the rights of city employees to unionize in city law for the first time. 

Moreno plans to introduce the proposal at the Thursday (March 23) council meeting. As currently written in a copy obtained by Verite News, the ordinance would legally establish city workers’ organizing rights, set up processes and timelines for collective bargaining and require the council to hire a new permanent “labor relations administrator” to act as a mediator between workers and the city. 

“We are doing this to increase the voice of the city employees and help us to appropriately improve the working environment,” Moreno said in a statement. “Often times, employees feel like they can’t speak up about issues. With a union in place those concerns can be voiced and addressed.”

Under city law, newly introduced ordinances must lie over for six days before going to a vote. So Moreno’s proposal will not be up for consideration immediately. But its introduction is a major step forward for city workers who have been trying to revive their union, which has been essentially dormant since 2018, and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. 

That process has been a slow one. In recent months, city workers and organizers have blamed delays on roadblocks from Cantrell’s administration. They say Cantrell has refused to meet with union representatives and some of her department heads prohibited organizing activity at city work sites until recently. That has sparked frustration not only for workers, but also City Council members. In fact, that is what sparked the ordinance in the first place.

“I filed this ordinance in response to our experience attempting to assist the workers’ current union in engaging with the administration,” Moreno said. “We’ve worked for almost two years to get the admin to talk to [the union] and to stop putting up roadblocks. City workers deserve to see these rights and rules codified so everyone knows the process.”

The ordinance was written in cooperation between Moreno’s office and an ad hoc group of city workers, which has been organizing at City Hall for more than three years, called the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee. Library worker and Organizing Committee co-chair Lee Abbott said the introduction of the ordinance is a major step forward in their efforts.

“This is one of the things we thought would not see the light of day,” Abbott said. “I’m really glad this is actually coming together. This is one of the legislative priorities we’ve had for almost two years at this point.”

Some of the rights laid out in the proposed ordinance — like the right form a union — are not in dispute. But Abbott explained that even if some of these rights already theoretically exist for city workers, they aren’t all written into law and there isn’t a clear process to actually exercise them.

Part of the issue is the different union rights available to public and private sector workers. Private sector workers are subject to the extensive rights and rules established under the National Labor Relations Board. But public sector government workers were explicitly left out of those union rights when the federal government passed the Nation Labor Relations Act in 1935. 

Some states and cities have passed laws clarifying public sector unionization rights. In New York, for example, a state law explicitly establishes the right of public sector employees to unionize and establishes a process for collective bargaining. Other states, like North Carolina, explicitly ban public sector collective bargaining. 

But Louisiana doesn’t have those types of laws on the books. It has neither banned public sector unions nor laid out a clear process to organize. 

“For municipal employees in Louisiana, collective bargaining is allowed,” Abbot said. “It’s not explicitly forbidden. But there’s no process.”

Moreno’s ordinance would force the city to start negotiations with a union for a collective bargaining agreement every year by July 1. If negotiations have reached a standstill by Sept. 1, the ordinance would trigger an intervention by the labor relations administrator. The city and union would need to actually sign the contract by Oct. 15 every year. 

Joseph Colón, another Organizing Committee member and a former employee with the City Planning Commission, said that the ordinance doesn’t cover specific benefits employees should get. Rather, it lays out the process through which the union can negotiate for those benefits. 

“​​This legislation is about codifying the way in which we collectively bargain,” Colón said. “We’re not talking about wages, benefits, protections. We’re talking about the process and structure through which that happens.”

Along with establishing the right to organize and collectively bargain, it would also establish the right to have union representation at disciplinary meetings and hearings. (Police and firefighters, who already have representation, have long been the only city employees who have consistently enjoyed legal counsel during disputes over discipline.)

Under the proposed law, employees would have the right to meet with union representatives during breaks and lunch hours, and employees would be allowed to talk to each other informally about organizing activity while on the clock. 

It also clearly lays out the three “bargaining units” that City Hall workers are organized into. The first is for the Fire Department, the second is for the Police Department and the third is for all other rank-and-file employees now covered by the city’s civil service system. 

The ordinance would also require the City Council to hold an annual meeting to discuss union and worker issues. And it would mandate that the mayor stay neutral in union matters — meaning the mayor wouldn’t be allowed to discourage union activity or membership, retaliate against employees for joining or organizing with a union or interfere in any way in worker organizing activity. 

Abbott said one of the big innovations in the ordinance is the provision creating the labor relations administrator to ensure labor rights are followed and intervene whenever negotiations break down. 

“I’m hoping this is something we can model for the rest of the state,” Abbott said. “This is something that does not exist at all. This would actually put in infrastructure for labor relations in this city for public workers. I think that’s huge.”

Cantrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Current union struggles affect ordinance language

Some of the specific rights laid out in the new ordinance are in direct response to the recent problems City Hall workers have faced in trying to establish an active union. 

City Hall workers voted to unionize in 2001 and organized under a major international union called Service Employees International Union. But in 2018, SEIU made a deal at the national level to transfer New Orleans city workers to a different union, called American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. 

From city workers’ perspective, they effectively lost union representation when that deal happened. For years, AFSCME had very little presence in the city and provided almost no support for city workers. In early 2020, AFSCME started working in earnest to establish their presence and make it clear that AFSCME, rather than SEIU, was the new City Hall representative. 

But nearly three years later, AFSCME has been unable to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement or increase local union membership, which fell to less than 10% of eligible workers during the union’s years of dormancy. The union was eventually able to get the Cantrell administration to formally acknowledge that AFSCME had taken over for SEIU. But since then, little progress has been made.

“Since there’s been a change in the representative union, organizing fell by the wayside,” Moreno wrote in her statement. “When the union started to try to reinvigorate a few years ago, they’ve received little communication from the admin and have been barred from even coming on site to talk to workers.”

AFSCME has largely blamed the Cantrell administration for the delays, saying that the administration has refused to sit down with union reps to begin contract negotiations and that it barred union representatives from some worksites and stymied the process of getting more employees to sign union cards and start paying dues. 

Workers with the Organizing Committee, meanwhile, grew increasingly frustrated with AFSCME as well. Some said that the union wasn’t putting in enough effort or resources to overcome the obstacles put in place by the Cantrell administration. Organizers even tried to see if they could sever ties with AFSCME and organize under a different union.

Colón said the entire process resulted in a situation where they technically were part of a union, but practically didn’t have any of the benefits of membership. The new ordinance aims to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

“We hope this helps speed things along and keeps everyone on track,” Moreno said. 

In addition, the ordinance lays out a process for if and when city workers are ever again transferred from one union to another, a process known as successorship. Those rules are intended to make sure successorship doesn’t happen without worker approval and that workers don’t lose their rights because of it.

The law also creates a process for workers to sever ties with their existing union and organize under a new one. That would give employees the option to leave AFSCME if a majority of covered employees vote to do so. 

“Even if we don’t want to see it happen, we need a process for decertification and successorship,” Abbott said. 

Moreno described the ordinance as a jumping off point and that she is setting up a working group to monitor how the law is implemented and suggest changes and additions. Abbott said there are some things he would like to be addressed down the line. For example, he’s still unclear on where the current ordinance would leave city workers who aren’t part of civil service or under the direct management of the mayor, like local court employees. 

But Abbott said that he was ultimately very excited about the ordinance as a first step. 

“Anything like this that actually codified workers rights and expands them and makes them accountable to some sort of system is a good thing,” he said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Joseph Colón as a former employee of the Department of Safety and Permits. Colón previously worked for the City Planning Commission. The story has been updated.

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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...