City Hall union advocates scored a major victory on Thursday (June 22) when the New Orleans City Council passed the so-called “Right to Organize” ordinance, which for the first time codifies the rights of city employees to unionize.

The ordinance creates processes and timelines for collective bargaining and requires the council to hire a new permanent “labor relations advisor” to mediate disputes between workers and the city. The council on Thursday also initiated the process to hire that advisor. 

Council members, city workers and local union leaders applauded the measure, and argued that it was a key move to help solve the city’s years-long staffing shortage and improve city services. 

“We can all agree it’s long past time we empower our city employees to build a better workplace in order to better serve our city,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno, the ordinance’s lead sponsor, said on Thursday. 

Lee Abbott, a public librarian and union organizer, said that until now, City Hall workers only had organizing rights in theory, but in practice, those rights “depended entirely on the whim of each mayoral administration.”

“Once this ordinance passes, city employees’ rights will be affirmed and enforceable,” Abbott said. “Thank you.” 

The council started considering the ordinance earlier this year when it became clear that city labor organizers were facing major obstacles working with Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration. Verite reported in February that a years-long effort to revive a union for most City Hall workers had largely stalled in part due to the administration’s refusal to meet with organizers. 

Verite reported in April that firefighters, who have their own independent union, haven’t been able to sign a new collective bargaining agreement since 2012, and had largely given up hope of working with the Cantrell administration.​​

“The reason we’re here today is that the city is hostile towards unions,” Councilman JP Morrell said on Thursday. “And our workers are not being treated well in local government.”

But, Morrell said, that will change after Thursday’s vote.

Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ordinance’s passage or whether the mayor plans to sign it into law. 

Morrell and other council members said aside from the inherent importance of treating workers well, the Right to Organize ordinance could help solve one of the city’s biggest current issues: the inability to hire enough workers.

Despite having an abundance of cash, the city has struggled to fill vital positions, from police officers to paramedics to equipment maintenance workers. In March, Verite reported that the city was only on track to spend just a fraction of its personnel budget this year due to vacant positions. 

Council members and city workers alike have said one key part of the solution is strengthening employees’ rights.

“For far too long our city government has really talked the talk on employee morale and workplace improvement, but really failed to walk the walk,” Moreno said. “We know organized workplaces are more productive, have stronger benefits, create more economic equity across racial and gender lines and produce happier employees.”

Robert “Tiger” Hammond, president of the New Orleans AFL-CIO, said that the decision to adopt the law in New Orleans could have a reverberating effect on the region. 

“In Jefferson Parish, St. Bernard Parish, we won’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Hammond said. “We have the language right here to make sure city employees and parish employees have the same rights we’re going to have here.”

A different playing field for government workers 

Much of the ordinance restates rights that workers already have under federal law. Almost all US workers, for example, have the right to organize and form a union in their workplace and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with their employer. 

But although city workers have those rights in theory, they haven’t been easily exercised by New Orleans workers, organizers say. That is in large part because unionization rules are different for private and public sector employees. 

Employees of private businesses generally have their labor rights guaranteed by an independent federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB acts as a third party that can intervene when workers’ organizing rights are being violated, like when an employer refuses to negotiate a contract with their union.

But government workers aren’t covered by the NLRB, and aren’t protected by its various rules and regulations. Some cities and states have passed laws to codify organizing rights for government workers, but until Thursday, Louisiana and New Orleans weren’t among them.

The lack of an enforcement framework left city workers without any avenues to practically exercise their rights. One example is the years-long effort to reestablish a union for city employees. 

City Hall used to have an active union representing almost all city workers, aside from the police and fire departments, which have their own independent representation. But that union essentially went dormant in 2018. 

Starting in 2019, a group of city workers organized under the banner of the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee in an effort to reestablish the union. But they faced major obstacles. One issue, organizers said, was that the Cantrell administration wasn’t meeting with the union or allowing organizers to access certain work sites to speak with workers. 

If the city were a private employer covered by the NLRB, organizers could submit a complaint to the NLRB, which could eventually force Cantrell to recognize the union and negotiate. But since they aren’t covered by the NLRB, workers had no real recourse, and were completely at the whim of whether or not the administration chose to negotiate. 

That will change under the Right to Organize ordinance. The legislation, for example, sets out annual timelines for union contract negotiations with the mayor’s administration, stating that they will begin no later than May 1 and conclude by Nov. 15. If negotiations reach an impasse, the labor rights adviser will either mediate or set out a mediation process to move the process forward. 

The ordinance “puts in writing the rights we already have, which on occasion in the past have been denied to us,” city worker and organizing committee co-chair Emilie Staat said on Thursday. “It allows us a voice and a right to improve our workplaces, and through that the efficiency of our city services.”

The city hall workers union is affiliated with a national union called the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The president of the local AFSCME chapter representing New Orleans city workers, Lloyd Permaul, told Verite on Thursday that the ordinance has already had a positive impact.

He said that even since the council started considering the ordinance, the Cantrell administration has become more responsive. And he said the ordinance itself will only help move the process faster. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Emilie Staat’s first name. The error has been corrected.

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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...