New Orleans activists raise heat on raising wages

By Jasmin López | Published by Scalawag Magazine

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The Fight For $15 is a national movement focused on unionizing low-wage food service and retail workers. The movement is facing dozens of state-level restrictions on raising local labor standards. Photos by the author.

When Tanya Harrell speaks, her easy-going New Orleans accent is strong. She was raised by both of her grandparents in the New Orleans metropolitan area. Her family hailed from the Saint Thomas Housing Development, one of the oldest public housing projects in New Orleans, but she and her grandmother share a home in Gretna. Harrell tries her best to keep them afloat. She’s 21, courteous, composed and confident when she reflects on her life and work.

Harrell tells me over the phone about her work in Louisiana with Fight for $15, a global movement to raise minimum wages. As she starts talking about it, the tone of her voice changes immediately, and even though I’m not looking at Harell, I can tell she’s smiling—she’s proud.

“I love the work that I’m doing with them—keeping up with people, building relationships. I’ve learned a lot,” says Harrell.

She goes on to explain how she became a leader with Fight for $15 where she does everything from canvassing to recruiting workers and often participates in speaking engagements to inform others about low-wage issues.

But this isn’t Harrell’s full-time job. She also works 40 hours per week at a local McDonald’s. Her work on low-wage issues started in 2015 when she was employed at another McDonald’s on Claiborne Avenue in the Central City area of New Orleans. A friend of hers, also a lead organizer with Fight for $15, came into her workplace and encouraged her to get involved.

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Tanya Harrell is a leader in the Fight For $15 in New Orleans, and works at a McDonalds.

Harrell was earning $7.25 per hour at the time and knew how difficult it was to get by on a low wage, let alone get ahead. Earlier that year, Harrell’s grandmother had become ill so she made the decision to hold off on getting her high school diploma in order to work full-time and help pay for her grandmother’s prescriptions and medical expenses.

“Yeah, I’m with it,” was Harrell’s response. She agreed to join the fight for $15.

“I’m most proud of myself because I came a long way as a worker to where I am now,” said Harrell. “I’m working towards a better life, not just for me.”

Today, Harrell earns $8 per hour—$0.75 more than minimum wage. Still, it’s a low wage, and with $320 per week before taxes, she struggles to cover basic expenses each month. She can’t afford healthcare. Public transportation costs her approximately $20 per week so she tries to cut corners by asking for help. “If my manager drives me home, that’s a blessing,” said Harrell.

Last month, her grandmother needed additional medication, so she bought the medication with money reserved for her phone bill. Then, her bank account was overdrawn. “I had to let my phone go off for two days,” Harrell says. She’s used to getting services cut off, requesting payment extensions. “I just have to wait for the next pay day.”

Treading water on the minimum wage

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a living wage calculator to estimate the cost of living in communities across the U.S. The living wage calculation for the New Orleans-Metairie area in Louisiana where Harrell resides is $11.26 per hour for one adult. According to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, minimum wage earners have to work 74 hours per week in order to afford a modest one-bedroom home in Louisiana.

Approximately 53,000 Louisiana residents are paid the minimum wage and over forty percent of working families don’t earn enough to cover basic monthly expenses like housing, childcare, food, transportation, healthcare, and taxes.

The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009, making annual earnings for a full-time minimum-wage worker $15,080Many states set their own minimum wages, but only 29 states and D.C. have minimum wages above $7.25 per hour.

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The minimum wage in Louisiana is several dollars below what studies say is a living wage in New Orleans. But state law prevents New Orleans from raising its wage.

Louisiana is one of five states that have not adopted a state minimum wage, and one of 18 states to pass law preempting local labor standards in 2016 and 2017 alone, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

While 76 percent of Louisiana residents, and its governor John Bel Edwards, support raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, Louisiana lawmakers voted against a bill that would do just that during the state’s 2017 legislative session. Senate Bill 153, authored by Senator Troy Carter, would have raised the minimum wage to $8 per hour in 2018 and then to $8.50 an hour in 2019, not including student employees, or some tipped workers and agriculture employees who are exempted from the federal minimum wage laws. A similar bill was also rejected the previous year.

Republican Senators Bret Allain, Conrad Appel, Jack Donahue, Jim Fannin, Sharon Hewitt, Ronnie Johns, Barrow Peacock, and Mack “Bodi” White voted against raising the minimum wage in Louisiana. Senator Bret Allain was not available to comment for this story, and the other senators did not respond to requests for an interview.

State legislatures around the country are also preventing cities and counties from passing their own minimum wage laws through preemption laws. These laws take away a locality’s power to enact a mandatory local minimum wage. This has been a major priority of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-backed group with extensive lobbying resources and influence in our state legislatures. ALEC has successfully preempted local laws on issues like the banning of plastic bags, fracking, guns, pesticides, tobacco, and has drafted “model” preemption bills to prohibit local minimum wage laws since at least 2002.

Louisiana’s preemptive law went into effect in 2012 following Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota. ALEC and other supporters of these laws claim they are trying to avoid a “patchwork” of wages within a state, but the National Employment Law Project statesthat preemption of local minimum wage laws is a priority for big business.

While Louisiana prevents localities from raising the minimum wage for private sector workers, the mayor of New Orleans raised the minimum wage of city employees to $10.10 in 2015, and the city of New Orleans passed a “living wage” ordinance that went into effect in January 2016. The ordinance requires all city contractors with contracts worth at least $25,000 and companies or organizations that received tax breaks or incentives from the city to pay their employees a minimum wage of $10.55 per hour.

“Pathways to prosperity can only be realized if jobs are good jobs that pay a good wage. Our workers will now be able to better support their families and provide them with more economic security,” said Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, when he signed the ordinance into law.

While Landrieu signed the living wage ordinance and publicized the law as part of the city’s resilience strategy and a way to end inequality, six months after the ordinance took effect, the city renewed its contract with a cleaning company that continued to pay its custodial workers $7.25 an hour.

City Councilman Jared Brossett who authored the ordinance also criticized the Landrieu administration for violating terms of the law and its slow process in bringing existing contracts into compliance with the law.

Following the city ordinance, Step Up Louisiana was formed. This membership-based group works on economic justice and education justice issues developed a 3-Point Economic Justice Platform: a $15 minimum wage, equal pay for equal work for women, and banning the box to stop discrimination against job applicants with criminal records. They have also held town halls as New Orleans 2017 municipal elections near and encouraged 28 candidates to publicly adopt the 3-Point Platform, which includes working towards a higher minimum wage in the city.

“This is a critical election for our city,” said Ben Zucker, Co-Director of Step Up Louisiana, and former Fight for $15 organizer. “We must hold all candidates accountable to the urgent needs of our community, like addressing poverty, and inequitable education system, and crumbling infrastructure.”

Together with the Fight for $15 and low wage workers, the work to unionize workers, raise local wages, and strike down preemption laws continues in New Orleans.

“We want a mayor that we can really trust”

Just before sunrise on Labor Day, dozens of low-wage workers marched towards a McDonald’s on Canal Street in New Orleans. With signs in hand, they excitedly made their way inside the building. A nationwide Labor Day strike was taking place, and they were there to demand a minimum wage of $15 per hour, and a union.

Inside of the McDonald’s, they chanted and danced, smiling and encouraging workers to walk out and join their fight. A young woman that sat on a counter spoke on the megaphone. “I’m a college student, and $7.25 and $8 is not enough.” A young man in the crowd yelled back “that’s not right!” and several others echoed him.

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Activists gathered before sunrise on Labor Day to protest for a higher minimum wage in New Orleans.

As she continued, a few New Orleans Police Department officers entered and asked that everyone leave. The crowd chanted “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” and peacefully exited.

After circling the building, they stood on the sidewalk in front of the McDonald’s. Tanya Harrell took the megaphone.

She explained that she once worked at a McDonald’s where her hours were cut to part-time. “Who could make money on a 4-8 shift?” she asked, as the crowd yelled back “that ain’t right!” She talked about wanting to care for her grandmother, and the obstacles workers face. “You all know that the government, they really don’t support us. They don’t really help us out.”

Chanting “Ronald, Ronald, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side,” the group made their way towards the neighboring Burger King. Three workers walked off the job, and the crowd cheered.

New Orleans’ workers and activists may not have the power to sway their state legislature. But when the legislative season starts back up in 2018, they intend to try–and they want a mayor who will back them. The New Orleans municipal primary elections will be held on October 14.

“We want them to go to Baton Rouge and actually fight for our union. For all the city workers, and all the people that are really struggling,” Harrell says. “We want a mayor that we can really trust.”

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Fighting to be with the People You Love

By Jasmin López | Published by Immigrant Defense Project‘s Indefensible Podcast

In 2016, William Diaz Castro was arrested at his home in New Orleans by ICE agents who were looking for someone else. He was charged with “illegal reentry” because he had been deported to Guatemala before. But this time, William’s wife Linda and their son witnessed the traumatic arrest. William is a leader with the Congreso de Jornaleros/Congress of Day Laborers, an organization of immigrant workers founded by day laborers who helped rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina, and drove a grassroots campaign for his release from inside the detention center.

To support William’s case, Linda found an attorney, Sima Atri with the New Orleans Workers Center Racial Justice. She hadn’t seen cases like William’s, individuals without prior convictions or extensive immigration records being charged with illegal reentry, which are more common along the border. Sima says that William’s case demonstrated a dangerous trend in New Orleans – one that compounds the entrenched racial and economic disparities of the world’s “prison capital.”

Since 2005, over 730,000 people have been prosecuted in our federal courts for the crime of improper migration. Last year 52% of all prosecutions in the federal courts were for either crossing and recrossing the border. In April 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions specifically directed federal prosecutors to increase prosecutions and punishment for immigration related offenses including illegal entry and re-entry. At the same time, ICE agents have been directed to treat all undocumented immigrants as “priorities” for deportation.

Latina Magazine Features Silent Beauty

Read my interview on Latina Magazine’s website

Excerpt:

When Jasmin Mara López was a child, she was abused by her grandfather, a beloved minister who regularly served his community. She didn’t tell a soul. In fact, like many survivors of childhood abuse, López lived with those tormenting memories and the trauma it carried in silence for decades. It wasn’t until 2014 when the New Orleans-based mexicana opened up about the sexual violence she had experienced in her youth. In doing so, she, unbeknownst to her at the time, allowed her relatives who had also suffered similar abuse in silence to discuss their haunting pasts and heal together.

But López, an award-winning journalist and producer, wants to explore the culture of silence around sexual abuse deeper, and she is using her family’s history to do that. The 37-year-old is writing and directing a documentary about that past.

“Silent Beauty” is an experimental documentary about the impacts of trauma, and the healing that sometimes occurs when opening up about it. The film, which is expected to be completed in fall 2017, includes López’s family’s super 8 archive (silent home films), cassette tape recordings and interviews that offer a unique tapestry of film, sounds and voices from her past and present.

We chatted with López about her film, the need to ditch the culture of silence around childhood sexual abuse in Latinx homes, what she has learned in the process of making “Silent Beauty,” her distinctive use of sound in the documentary and more.

Read my interview on Latina Magazine’s website

Silent Beauty: A documentary about child sexual abuse

Silent Beauty explores my family’s history with child sexual abuse and a culture of silence.

It’s an experimental documentary about the effects of trauma, and the healing and beauty found in the process of coming forward. This film utilizes my family’s super 8 archive, old cassette tape recordings, and interviews that bring forth a rich tapestry of film, sounds, and voices from our past and present.

Silent Beauty is also a project that will document the stories of other survivors, and hold screenings to share the film with youth, community groups, and survivors around the U.S.

Please share our fundraising campaign:

https://igg.me/at/silentbeauty/x/3886747

Thank you,

Jasmin Mara López
@jasminmara

Silent Beauty from AnnieFlanagan on Vimeo.

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/silent-beauty-film-youth/embedded/3886747

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New Orleans Reconstruction Workers Fight to Remain

By Jasmin López | Published by Making Contact

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Southern Gulf Coast. Reconstruction after Katrina drew thousands of people from India, Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, and other Latin American countries. Workers were charged with pulling dead bodies from abandoned homes and rebuilding New Orleans. But the influx of migrant workers also increased immigration crackdowns.

Maternal Matters: Indigenous Women in the Yucatan Challenge Violence and Indifference

By Jasmin López | Published by Making Contact

In Mexico an indigenous woman is three times more likely to die during childbirth or postpartum than a non indigenous woman. Both culture and government policies play a role in the violation of their rights, which often leads to death. Reporter Jasmin Lopez went to the Yucatan to find out more. This piece was produced in collaboration with  reporter Karen Tenorio.

Deadly Divide: Migrant Death on the Border

By Jasmin López | Published by Making Contact

Over 6,000 migrant deaths were recorded on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico between 1998 and 2013. The true number of deaths is likely higher, and thousands of families never hear from their loved ones again.

This documentary travels to the desert ranch lands of Brooks County and the border town of Reynosa, Tamaulipas to introduce us to the human cost of “prevention through deterrence,” a border enforcement strategy introduced during the Clinton administration.

Deadly Divide is part of an on-going immigration collaboration with Photographer Brandon Thibodeaux exploring the human cost of current a border enforcement strategies.

Click here to see the photos.

Living Wage: Profile of a low-wage earner

By Jasmin López | Published by KALW

D’Wana Stewart is a native San Franciscan. She graduated from June Jordan School for Equity, a small high school on the southeast side of the city. Now 24, she’s working three jobs and shares a home with her mother – it’s the only way she’s been able to stay in San Francisco. We spent a week with D’wana, to get a sense of her life, living on the minimum wage.

“Definitely like to be further ahead in my life. Even though it seems like I’m doing so much.” – D’wana Stewart

Living with HIV as a senior

By Jasmin López | Published by KALW

People 50 years or older now make up the majority of HIV and AIDS cases in San Francisco. Since HIV emerged in the 1980’s, treatments have improved — allowing people to live longer with this chronic illness. So as the number of older people living with HIV grows, so do the other things that come with age — like access to affordable housing and health care, mental health issues and isolation.

You can find a reporter’s notebook about my personal connection to this story here.

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Young Immigration Activist Struggles to Balance Courage with Fear

By Jasmin López | Published by The California Report

“My name is Marco Perez. I am undocumented and unafraid,” he said.

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