Could New Orleans Be the Labor Movement’s Next Frontier?

Could New Orleans Be the Labor Movement’s Next Frontier?

Could New Orleans Be the Labor Movement’s Next Frontier?

The city runs on tourism—and thousands of non-union restaurant workers.


For New Orleans bartenders, business is booming. (Doug Waldron/Flickr)

Right now in New Orleans, you can hear the whir of helicopters up above and the groan of trucks heading toward the French Quarter, preparing for the thousands of tourists about to descend on the city. New Orleans is expecting 150,000 visitors for the Superbowl this Sunday, and a million more to binge-drink during Mardi Gras a few days later. And behind every bar and restaurant counter, workers are signing up for extra shifts in hopes that they can make a little commission off the influx.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is making headlines seemingly every day—for its growing population of educated, often white YURPs, for its nonprofits, urban planning projects, startups and film industry. But the sector that keeps the city afloat, other than oil, is food and hospitality. It’s part of the reason New Orleans has been shielded from the worst of the recession. All these young creatives making movies, writing grants, toiling with Habitat for Humanity? Many are paying their rent with tip money. And so are the young natives—black, white, educated or not. Kezia, a 25-year-old New Orleans native I met today, estimates that 50 to 60 percent of people she went to high school with are in the industry.

I’ve spent the better part of a year obsessing about the growing number of young people taking orders and pouring drinks, as well as the possibility of organizing the industry to make these jobs better. And today, I can’t help but think that New Orleans, which bends over backwards to serve both tourists and natives several times a year, could (or should) be the next frontier for service industry unions. Las Vegas, whose economy also hinges on tourism, has had a measure of success with its Culinary Union. But if groups trying to unionize the service industries had the benefit of a critical mass of political young people—a mass New Orleans has in spades—efforts like these may really succeed.

A certain amount of organizing is already underway. “Ellen,” 24, makes an hourly wage at a “big place” downtown and has been helping UNITE-HERE work on campaigns in places like the Loew’s hotel and the food concession stands at Louis Armstrong airport. So far, their nascent efforts have improved working conditions for “hundreds of families in the city.” Ellen has been in New Orleans for three years and has worked several service jobs. She’s often been shafted out of her $2.13 hourly wages, if she gets a wage at all. “New Orleans has a low unemployment rate…[the service industry] is the ever-present option for everyone, but it’s an option that pays poverty wages.”

Still, there’s a major problem with my labor movement fantasy, something several New Orleans residents have pointed out to me: Much of the young population is just as transient as they are do-gooding.

“There’s so many people in the service industry,” Kezia tells me. “So it feels like this ripe thing, like we should be able to do something about this. The problem is, no one takes it seriously as what they actually want to be doing with themselves.”

In 2010, Salon’s Matt Davis wondered whether post-Katrina New Orleans was “somewhere for upwardly mobile people in their early 20s to come for a dose of gritty authenticity, before moving on to responsible, child-rearing lives elsewhere.” A huge chunk of New Orleans’ young people are from somewhere else, and it remains to be seen whether this whiter, more educated population will stay to raise a family or buy property—or even whether “responsible, child-rearing lives” are even in reach for them. In the meantime, it may benefit SEIU and UNITE-HERE to keep a close watch on this Southern corner of hospitality.

For more on the rising tide of progressivism in the South, check out Nona Willis Aronowitz’s dispatch from Alabama.

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