The Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center will consider a resolution at its Wednesday board meeting to donate $1 million to two local funds that were recently set up to provide financial aid to out-of-work hospitality workers during the coronavirus crisis.
The resolution comes after weeks of demands by a coalition of 35 local unions, advocacy groups and other organizations for the Convention Center to release $100 million of its reserves to provide $1,000 grants to 100,000 out of work hospitality industry workers. The group says there are 95,300 hospitality workers in the region, citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent report from the bureau says that in February 2020, there were 93,800 “leisure and hospitality” workers in the New Orleans area, out of a total 586,000 workers in the region.
The group is called the Coalition to Create a Fair Fund for Hospitality Workers. Its members include Unite Here Local 23, which represents many local contract workers who make a good portion of their money by working jobs at the Convention Center, but aren’t technically employed by the center.
Even before the larger coalition formed in late March, Unite Here had been demanding compensation for those workers during the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis, which has stopped tourism and travel dead in its tracks and has already led to the cancellation or loss of 74 Convention Center events, according to recent Convention Center documents.
The Convention Center has said it will pay all of its 500 employees through the end of April, but has not made any commitment to providing aid to the contractors. Compensation for contract workers remains a central demand of the coalition.
Last week, the local coalition found national support from the Communications Workers of America, or CWA, one of the largest unions in the country. In a letter to Convention Center President and General Manager Michael Sawaya, CWA’s Secretary-General threatened to pull the groups August 2021 convention from New Orleans if the center didn’t negotiate and come to an agreement with the coalition.
The Wednesday resolution would send $500,000 to United Way of Southeast Louisiana to fund its Hospitality Cares Pandemic Response Fund. It would send another $500,000 Greater New Orleans Foundation for its Louisiana Service & Hospitality Family Assistance Program.
But if the offer is an attempt at a compromise, it doesn’t appear to satisfy the workers’ coalition. In an email to its members Wednesday morning, the coalition claims the offer was made without their consultation. The coalition is now organizing a phone-bank campaign to urge other Louisiana government officials to intervene.
“Late yesterday and with no consultation, the Convention Center’s Board–an unelected body that controls annual taxation revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars–came back with a counter proposal in the agenda for today’s Board meeting agenda,” the email said. “The Convention Center Board may not be accountable to us, but our elected officials are, and it’s time for them to intervene.”
Aside from the offer being just one percent of what the coalition was asking for, the group is taking issue with the fact that it wasn’t devised with their direct input. A theme throughout the campaign has been the power dynamic between the thousands of hospitality workers in the city and the powerful, publicly funded tourism industry organizations that decide what direction the tourism industry should take and how tourism-related tax revenue should be spent.
Earlier this month, City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said, in an interview with The Lens, that there was a fundamental shift in power that had to occur within the industry. Palmer wasn’t speaking directly about the coalition’s demand for $100 million. But she said that the Convention Center should be more focused on direct short-term relief for workers and less focused on its long-term development plans worth more than $1 billion.
“Their value systems are wrong,” she said. “My shtick now is: Poverty is expensive and charity doesn’t work. That’s the reality. It’s a power structure. The power structure is ‘look how great it is we’re giving to these people.’ That’s a power structure that needs to be changed.”
Speaking to The Lens earlier this week, CWA Secretary General Sara Steffens said the union wouldn’t decide whether to pull its convention based on how much money the center donated to worker relief. Rather, she said they’d be watching for whether the center negotiated and came to an agreement with the coalition.
“What’s important to us is the process of working with Unite Here and other unions and generally supporting the hospitality workers. If our fellow unions made an agreement with them then we’d be happy because then there’s two sides at the table,” she said. “But it doesn’t work unless there’s two sides at the table.”
The Convention Center board meeting is being held virtually at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Residents can submit public comments by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. In previous virtual meetings during the coronavirus crisis, public comments have been collected, but not read aloud during meetings as other public bodies, such as the City Council, have done.