Members of Stand with Dignity (pictured) and other groups pressed an unwieldy bloc of candidates on inequality.
At a rambunctious "Town Hall for Better Jobs" July 25, a crowded field of more than 20 candidates in upcoming mayoral, New Orleans City Council and assessor's elections vied for the affections of progressive groups, making big promises on better wages, better jobs and a more secure future for New Orleanians.
The event at Ashe Cultural Arts Center was hosted by a coalition of groups that advocate for social justice and worker's rights, including Stand with Dignity
, Step Up Louisiana
, Unite Here!
, European Dissent
, United Teachers of New Orleans
and Show Me $15
. Panelists offered testimony on their struggles with underemployment, bad pay, efforts to and retaliation for labor organizing, and crime, which most linked to poor economic opportunity in the city. Candidates were asked to give 30-second takes on four issues: the right to organize, jobs as public safety, career access and their support of a living wage.
"I have four kids and I've been making $11 an hour for four years," Stand with Dignity member Reginald Anderson said, addressing the candidates. "Y'all are giving us all these 'vote for me' things when y'all need to help us."
In the room, you could sometimes feel murmurs of the tension that underpins much public discourse in New Orleans these days, where the benefits of a rapidly changing city have not been shared equally among its citizens. Service industry workers spoke of feeling cut out of the profit bonanza from the city's booming tourism industry, which just reached its highest visitor levels since 2004
. Others mentioned the perceived inadequacy of the city's living wage ordinance
, which guarantees a wage of $10.55 per hour for city contractors, and of the difficulty of getting a job with a criminal record.
Several candidates, including mayoral candidate Byron Cole, City Council District B candidate Timothy David Ray and Council-at-large candidate David Gregory Nowak, pledged their support for a $15 minimum wage in the city of New Orleans. But others went even further. Council-at-large candidate Kenneth Cutno suggested an $18 per hour minimum wage, citing a recent study saying that's how much one needs to survive in the city. (Figures on this vary, but WWL-TV recently reported on one study
that found a startling $62,000 annual was needed to live comfortably in the city — about $30 an hour). Nowak also advocated for a universal basic income
. Only one person, City Council District B candidate Seth Bloom, said he opposed a $15 wage.
"We need to make sure that you're paid fairly, and we need a better reporting process [on pay abuses] as well. ... [Change] has to come from the people. " Council-at-large candidate and state Rep. Helena Moreno said. (Moreno is a longtime advocate of fair pay issues, particularly for women.)
Front row, from left: mayoral candidates Byron Cole, Troy Henry, LaToya Cantrell, Desiree Charbonnet and Matthew Hill.
Panelists also spoke out about what they see as limited career opportunities in the city, and job training programs that don't match available positions. They asked candidates to commit to paid vocational training that leads to the kinds of well-paid positions that are necessary to thrive in an increasingly expensive metropolitan area.
"You cannot tell me that people in New Orleans do not want to work. I see it every day," panelist Shannan Cvitanovic, who works with adult literacy programs at YMCA of Greater New Orleans, said. "[But] soon I will not have students, because they cannot afford to live here."
Candidates almost universally agreed that the jobs situation in the city is dire, and in their short comments, proposed a variety of solutions that emphasized the need for training programs that actually turn into a job.
Mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet called for new initiatives to encourage local hiring. "We need to make sure the people who make millions of dollars off this city employ the people who live here," she said. In an amusing moment, mayoral candidate Matthew Hill proposed decriminalized online gambling, sports betting and the ever-popular legalized marijuana to spur economic development.
During the second part of the event, rising crime — sure to be a major issue during this election season — came up, but panelists presented it as the consequence of communities fractured by economic desperation. Most candidates acknowledged the crime problem and seemed to agree with the position that better jobs would drive down the crime rate. Mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell empathized with panelists' stories of nearby shootings and carjackings, saying she has had the same worries coming home with her daughter. City Council District A candidate Drew Ward condemned the prospect of higher police wages as a crime deterrent, pointing out that police officers already make more than the average wage in the city.
Panelists from United Teachers of New Orleans and Unite Here! urged candidates to support workers' efforts to formally organize. In one of the evening's more surprising trends, many candidate pledged firm support for unions and collective bargaining agreements, with the phrase "I bleed union" popping up more than once. In a city without a strong legacy of union activity and organizing (unlike Midwestern union strongholds such as Pittsburgh or Detroit), it was unusual to hear so many prominent figures claim a personal connection to unions via their families or previous work and even organizing experience.
In toto, the candidates came across as more alike than different, and often seemed to be trying to out-progressive one another. But it was refreshing to see their attention to and empathy for the issues which affect the city's most vulnerable, and hence least powerful, citizens, and to hear widespread support for issues which might have been seen as outlandish (such as a $15 minimum wage) just a few short years ago. It also was encouraging to hear many candidates pledge independence from Baton Rouge, where state lawmakers can seem indifferent to the unique problems of more-urban, more-liberal, more-culturally-dynamic New Orleans.
And the standing-room-only event had a festive, carnivalesque air, with candidates' aides distributing leaflets like bingo cards and lots of laughter, cross-talk and the occasional "That ain't right!" from the crowd. In a grim time for national politics, it was inspiring to see so many people feeling hopeful about the prospect of change.
"I'm tired of New Orleans being a 'settle-for' city," remarked mayoral candidate Troy Henry. It seemed as though many in attendance felt the same.