Getting the Housing Authority on Board
Over the past year, HANO and STAND, a grassroots organizing group, worked closely together to create a project labor agreement to decide upon the wages and training that would be required at Iberville. Gilmore was forced to scrap the agreement once he was notified that Louisiana, a “right-to-work” state, has a law barring public agencies using public money from mandating union-labor agreements, but he’s discussed the possibility that a similar agreement could be fashioned if private funders step in to fund some of the construction.
Unless that happens, Gilmore hopes that the Career Academy will fill some of those gaps. “I want labor unions to teach our participants construction courses, to get kids into apprenticeships. They’re our employees. We can enter into agreements with unions. We just can’t require that our contractors do that.”
Cynthia Wiggins, a 20-year resident leader at HANO, is overseeing Section 3 hires at Iberville for the demolition. She requires that every applicant fill out a pre-employment application in person at an office on the Iberville footprint. She feels like that gives her a chance to talk with each person and verify qualifications. “People say, ‘I’m a carpenter,’ but they’re really not,” she said. She talks with them about their work experience so that the applications reflect more of what she calls “real skills.”
Wiggins wishes that there was a training school that she could send people to get them prepared for the construction phases that are coming. “You know you can’t do construction with people who don’t have experience,” she said. Administrators in Philadelphia, Boston, and New Orleans have found that many people need intensive reading and math assistance before they can even enter a construction-training program. Drug tests, lack of childcare, and transportation are other common barriers. Philadelphia and Boston bar those with positive drug tests but help pay for transportation and childcare, while one developer in New Orleans, faced with high rates of positive drug tests opted to delay testing until weeks into the program, when participants felt more buy-in. These discussions seem light years ahead of early 2011, when Alfred Marshall couldn’t seem to get himself or his neighbors hired at Cooper. As construction ramped up, Marshall put on his workboots and hardhat every morning and walked across the street, ready to be hired. But no one would allow him to put his skills to work.
A fellow resident told him about STAND with Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, whose staff had expertise about Section 3 law. Soon, large groups of workers were attending HANO’s board meetings, asking the agency to take a second look at the Section 3 hiring reports submitted by contractors.
STAND “focused the housing authority’s attention on Section 3,” said Gilmore, who listened and opened doors, because he supports the active use of Section 3, he said. “If you’re going to spend millions and millions of federal grant money in projects of one sort or another, some of that should go to help uplift residents’ lives,” he said.
Gilmore allowed STAND volunteers to come into HANO’s offices and audit contractors’ payroll records. STAND highlighted questionable data and asked for policy changes. They testified at every monthly board meeting and they visited the hiring trailer every day. They asked why most resident workers, no matter what work they were doing, were earning $8.01 per hour, the lowest possible wage, designated for laborers. They saw subcontractors hire new workers who filled out applications on the back of a pickup truck, instead of the hiring trailer.
Not long after, HANO hired the first of a series of Section 3 compliance officers. But to close all the loopholes took months. At one point, Gilmore withheld payment from the general contractor for not complying with his contract with HANO and its Section 3 guidelines.
“I get impatient about that stuff,” Gilmore said, recalling the hiring trailer inexplicably closed during business hours, jobs that weren’t posted, and a hundred other “little glitches.” At times, he said he felt like, “Do we have to watch these guys 24 hours a day?”
Luckily, through Cooper’s residents, Gilmore basically did have eyes and ears round the clock, said STAND attorney Colette Tippy. “The important piece was that the community was there, watching,” she said. And as a result of the hard work
done at Cooper, the Section 3 process began when the first contractor drove on the site at Iberville. “Iberville is already better,” Tippy said, noting that 30 Section 3 workers have already been hired there, even though demolition has just begun.
One of the hardest parts of the process at Cooper was finding ways for residents to communicate directly with contractors, who at first felt as though they didn’t need to respond to resident complaints, said Donna Johnigan, president of the Cooper’s Resident Management Corp., who helped to facilitate a few heated meetings in the early part of Cooper organizing. “Don’t talk around me, don’t talk about me, talk to me,” Johnigan said.
She expects that Iberville will go through its own growing pains, until all contractors realize what Section 3 is and why it’s taken seriously. She describes how they struggled and struggled at Cooper. And then, the struggle ended and Section 3 began to seem so simple, she said. “Then it was like putting on a glove, once you understand how it fit on your fingers.”