At rally and march, New Orleans service industry workers call for better treatment

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At a small but lively rally and march Sept. 16 that ended across from New Orleans tourism ground zero Jackson Square, New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee (NOHWC) and supporters stood up for the rights of the city's service industry workers.

About 75 people attended the event, which was NOHWC's first rally supporting predictable scheduling, higher wages, sick pay, paid breaks, freedom from harassment, access to health care and other benefits — many of which are standard in many other industries, but denied to service industry workers.

Speakers called for more equitable treatment for the employees who support the city's $7.41 billion tourism industry. In speeches and chants, they stressed a simple idea: workers are operating the city's hundreds of restaurants, hotels and hospitality outlets without sharing in the profits.

"We produce that money. We run the restaurant and hotel industry for [business owners]. Without us, the industry would collapse," NOHWC member Meg Maloney said. "We have to put pressure on them from below."

Walking between march leaders and a brass band, participants held signs opposing right-to-work laws and other aspects of the industry that make workers vulnerable. Signs read "86 exploitation," "No more racist bosses," "Tourists and bosses eat while we starve," and "No more non-local, all-white front of house; NOLA native all-black back of house" (referring to racial segregation in the industry, in which workers of color often are relegated to worse-paid back of house positions).

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In a speech, NOHWC member Ashlee Pintos described a recent restaurant staff meeting in which a general manager told his employees they should fear losing their jobs, because they're "disposable." She called for New Orleans industry workers to join forces against employer exploitation, and stressed their power in the city's day-to-day operations.

"[What if there were] no cocktails, no brunch, no hurricanes, no [hand] grenades?" she said. "If nobody came to work, they couldn't fire everybody. ... We just need to organize."

NOHWC members pointed to the myriad challenges service industry workers experience, from job instability to unpredictable scheduling to inadequate public transit, which either forces workers to pay for expensive French Quarter parking or can make them rack up workplace consequences (like "write-ups" or firing) while using a sometimes-faulty bus and streetcar system. More than one person mentioned the substance abuse which plagues the industry and often is attributed to stressful or toxic working conditions.

Others brought up the need for a more livable wage for industry workers. Tipped employees in Louisiana can earn as little as $2.13 an hour from their employer, a number which has not changed since 1991.

"If you give people a livable wage it'd take a lot of the pressures and issues off," Pintos said. "People [wouldn't be] just scrounging for tips."

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NOHWC has been active since January. The organization currently is gathering signatures for a Work Week Ordinance it plans to present to the mayor-elect and the new City Council after this fall's municipal elections; the 10-point program is a list of protections for restaurant, hotel and other industry workers. As of Saturday, Pintos said no candidates thus far have come out in support of the ordinance. She called today's rally and march a "show of solidarity" with French Quarter workers of all stripes, many of whom have cheered on other recent activist events downtown.

"[Today] hospitality workers get to cheer for people who are organizing for them," she said.

The march departed from Washington Square in Faubourg Marigny and traveled up Decatur Street to St. Louis Street and back down Chartres Street to Jackson Square. Participants chanted "We are unstoppable; another world is possible" and "New Orleans bosses, you're no good; treat your workers like you should," as heavy crowds of tourists emerged from bars to watch or film the event on cellphones. NOHWC members occasionally darted to the sidewalk to pass literature to people in the embroidered polos or black-and-whites which are the typical uniforms of French Quarter restaurant workers.

In the crowd, members of several local progressive organizations, including Take 'Em Down NOLA, Democratic Socialists of America and the People's Assembly, were visible. Well-known community activist and organizer Malcolm Suber took the mic to encourage those who attended.

"Don't be disappointed by small numbers at first. ... If we struggle, more will come. If we stand tall, more will come," he said. "The journey of getting hospitality members organized in this city begins today."

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