The Coming Storm

After Hurricane Harvey, Trump and one of the most right-wing state governments in history get to “rebuild” an area of more than 7 million people.

Port Arthur, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, August 31, 2017. Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez / Flickr

The rains over Corpus Christi and Houston have finally stopped, and floodwaters are beginning to recede. Some residents are still stranded, while others — tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands — won’t be able to return to their homes for weeks and months.

Meanwhile, the race to capitalize on the disaster, to redistribute wealth upward, and to transform the region has already begun.

While rain was still falling over much of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, Patrick Gleason took to the editorial section of Forbes to propose the now-expected Republican (and increasingly Democratic) response to natural disasters: suspend the Davis-Bacon Act and cut wages in order to spur reconstruction efforts.

For many who survived the Katrina crisis twelve years ago, Gleason’s words will sound disturbingly familiar. He advances the same flawed recovery approach that the Bush White House and local politicians took in Louisiana. They rolled back labor and environmental protections, guaranteeing wide profit margins for corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel while creating a deeply uneven and unjust recovery process.

New Orleans has seen an entrepreneurship boon since Katrina, with individual start-ups outpacing the national average by 68 percent in 2013. And yet the city’s child poverty rate still sits higher than the dismal numbers for the state of Louisiana overall, not to mention the nation. Three out of five renters spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing.

American liberals find themselves in uncharted waters with a social disaster on the scale and complexity of the south Texas floods. As the popular outrage over Charlottesville showed, liberal antiracism retains powerful currency in many corners, but, when confronted with ruling-class power and less social-media friendly subjects — like wages, collective bargaining, workplace safety, and other issues that have direct material effects on the lives of millions of working people— many of those same voices fall silent.

Gleason voiced his preferred solution to Harvey’s destruction in a seemingly novel way, claiming that living wages are racist. For those unfamiliar with its provisions, the Davis-Bacon Act requires federal construction projects to pay prevailing wages for workers. In areas with strong building-trades unions, like southeast Texas, it effectively mandates that reconstruction efforts after national disasters pay living wages.

Gleason cites George Will’s June 2017 column, which details Congressman Robert Bacon’s racist motivations, and follows Will’s ahistorical reasoning that the legislation’s origins forever taint it. This conclusion not only sweeps aside the decades of civil rights and labor reform that transformed the application of Davis-Bacon but also ignores the efforts of people like Will and Gleason to undermine such progress.

In this way, Gleason and Will echo a cohort of self-styled progressive historians and political scientists who describe the universalist policies of the New Deal and Great Society eras as inherently flawed because of constraints imposed on them by segregationist congressmen. They also obscure the years of struggle it took to bring some people under the protection of these laws. Thus Gleason uses racism, not contractor profits and upward redistribution, to justify his suggestion that President Trump immediately suspend the Davis-Bacon Act.

In moments like this, when others want to turn crisis into opportunity, we need a clear-headed understanding of class power and a practical commitment to working-class interests.

We Already Know What Will Happen

If Hurricane Katrina is any guide — and if it’s not to anyone with a pulse and an ounce of morality or a basic understanding of our political situation, it should be — the suspension of Davis-Bacon may not be the absolute worst thing that can be done in rebuilding a city for its residents (more on that in a moment), but it certainly ranks high on the list.

Living wages for returning residents serve as the foundation for any just recovery from a disaster of Harvey’s magnitude. High wages in reconstruction work provide employment opportunities for residents whose workplaces are slow to reopen or will close permanently. Good pay puts money in the hands of those who need it most and allows the tens of thousands of displaced people to return quickly. All the while, it puts upward pressure on wages in other industries, thus helping everyone return and rebuild.

When he waived Davis-Bacon, George W. Bush was once again following in his father’s footsteps. H. W. took the same deregulatory action in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, which swept across south Florida and Louisiana, and Hurricane Iniki, which struck Hawaii a few weeks later.

In the weeks after Katrina, the W. Bush administration handed out lucrative, noncompetitive contracts to White House–friendly firms and instituted measures that weakened labor protections. The Department of Labor suspended federal wage restrictions for sixty days and also temporarily repealed Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to file affirmative action plans, as well as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards throughout much of the Gulf Coast. These decisions spurred a race to the bottom in terms of wage floors and working conditions.

Only the most vulnerable workers were willing to return the city, and, while the wage provisions, OSHA standards, and other protections were eventually restored, these actions created a pro-capital environment of deregulation and hyper-exploitation.

Contractors drew on a reserve army of low-wage workers primarily from Mexico and Central America, though some hailed from as far away as Brazil and India. All told, some thirty thousand migrant workers cycled through the region in the first five years after Katrina.

Scholars have documented the abuses they endured, which included underpayment, wage theft, hazardous working conditions, squalid living quarters, coercion, and violence while being regularly subjected to coercion, violence, and fifteen-hour work days.

The Gulf Coast is still feeling the effects of these decisions. More than one hundred thousand people didn’t return to southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coasts after Katrina. Many likely would have if decent paying reconstruction jobs had been in the offing.

Furthermore, in the absence of prevailing wages, the reconstruction work was often shoddy, undertaken by inexperienced student and church volunteers. Homes and buildings are already showing signs of dilapidation barely a decade later.

We pay plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and skilled laborers decent money because they know how to make our homes and apartments safe and secure. They can even rebuild cities better than they were, so, when the next five-hundred-year storm comes in eight or nine years, we don’t have to rebuild them again.

In the stead of displaced residents came those able to profit on their absence. Real estate developers gobbled up land, and profiteers sold desperate homeowners toxic Chinese drywall. A whole host of business people of every race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation made billions of dollars by decimating public housing, health care, and school systems.

Reconstruction for the Many

Right now, in Houston skyscrapers, in Austin backrooms, in Washington congressional offices and think tanks as well in federal agencies like Betsy DeVos’s department of education and Ben Carson’s department of housing and urban development, plans are being hatched.

They will  try to privatize and charterize the school system, create a “smaller and more sustainable urban footprint,” destroy public housing, and make health care even more inaccessible. They won’t promote these measures by promising to decimate the public sphere, to prevent thousands of unwanted residents from returning to their homes and communities, or to make health care more unaffordable. They know no popular support exists for plans like that.

Donald Trump, who consistently stoked some of his supporters’ anti-immigrant sentiments, will yield to pressure from capital to waive Davis-Bacon, further exposing his real class loyalties. This should come as little surprise: the flows of undocumented labor he rails against in stump speeches were set in motion at the urging of agribusiness and the hospitality sector, including some of the president’s own holdings.

That’s what’s so telling about Gleason’s editorial. It’s not simply that it’s an opening salvo for the manner in which Republicans and many Democrats, business interests, and a variety of elite ideological strains of the center and right-wing want to rebuild Southeast Texas. It’s the language that Gleason uses.

When Houston, or Beaumont, or Corpus Christi tries to fire  every public school teacher and completely privatizes the area’s school system, they will say that the new system helps disadvantaged black and Latino children escape a horribly bureaucratized and ineffectual public school system. (This, by the way, tops our list of the worst things to do.) They will proclaim that these kids and their parents need more choice. They will tell us that kids deserve energetic teachers who are not held back by outdated methods and job security.

Similarly, they will suggest that the floodwaters created a perfect opportunity to break the cycle of poverty that traps black and Latino families in dangerous public housing or neighborhoods that breed crime.

In the twelve years since Katrina, public officials have learned from the catastrophic incompetence and bungling of that crisis and embraced a more proactive, public-relations approach to disaster management. But, as Gleason’s op-ed makes clear, they have retained their commitment to privatizing the recovery and profiting from it.

We need disaster preparation and reconstruction that uses state power to protect the interests of the majority — the people who have lost so much and stand to lose so much more if the model of Katrina is followed.

Fighting back against the elite will take deep organizational commitment. It will take unions, neighborhood groups, churches, volunteer groups, local and national politicians, and a horrified nation coming together to demand a people’s reconstruction for the many and not the few. It will take the ability to see beyond easy morality tales.

It will take the attention span required to not get caught up in what Donald Trump tweets the next minute, whether Kanye West weighs in on the disaster, what Melania Trump’s footwear choices indicate about something, or whether Joel Osteen is a horrible human being or just misunderstood. It will also take the ability to dig beneath the frequently and explicitly antiracist language and rhetoric that the people who want to rebuild Southeast Texas to enhance their profit and power will marshal to sell their undemocratic plans.

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Thomas J. Adams is Dianne Woest Fellow of the Historic New Orleans Collection and senior lecturer in history and American studies at the University of Sydney. Along with Matt Sakakeeny he is the editor of Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity (Duke University Press, 2019).

Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

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