In the next few weeks, New Orleans city workers may finally have union rights codified in our City Code. The Right to Collective Bargaining Ordinance, introduced by City Council member Helena Moreno, sets out the processes for union recognition, contract negotiations and mediation between public employee unions and the mayor’s office.

I’m a city library employee, a union member, and an organizer for the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee. When NOCWOC proposed this ordinance, we knew from experience that without our rights codified, future mayors could delay union recognition and contract negotiations, a situation we were caught in during much of the pandemic. City workers had a union contract for many decades but the new union, AFSCME, was made to wait three years before receiving recognition from the mayor’s office. Now we will have a process that gives workers confidence that the law protects our rights to organize and have a union.

Despite claims that this ordinance adds unaccountable bureaucracy or acts against the public interest, it's worth pointing out that public employees already have the right to unionize; this ordinance merely establishes how those rights are enforced. Protecting our union rights means that we will have a voice on issues of pay, benefits and working conditions that bolster working class jobs.

City workers are dedicated to serving the people of New Orleans and improving their workplaces, benefiting everyone. Crucial improvements to city departments won’t merely happen on their own; we must organize to make our workplaces dignified and desirable places to work.

For example, city workers are leading the struggle for better conditions in several city departments. Library workers organized to save the funding for our library system in 2020 and 2021. Department of Public Works employees organized in July 2021 for trucks with working A/C. EMTs are organizing for functioning ambulances and better pay to increase their staffing numbers. In August 2021, NOCWOC and our allies rallied to raise the city minimum pay to $15 an hour.

We have seen how COVID, furloughs, budget cuts, hiring freezes and inadequate pay have had a corrosive effect on staff numbers across departments. Additionally, privatization has siphoned off the potential for good public sector jobs which can provide better pay, healthcare and retirement benefits. We need codified union rights in order to save the public services that all New Orleanians depend on.

Codified union rights help build racial and gender pay equity. Black and women workers represent a large portion of public employees, and ensuring our union rights is critical for racial and gender justice. For example, the Economic Policy Institute recently studied the role of public sector unions in reducing racial and gender inequality between workers in the public and private sector. They noted how “[i]n states where employers are required to bargain, Black and Hispanic workers earn more in local government than in the private sector, where they face large racial pay gaps.”

Building the economic mobility for the working class of New Orleans is key to a strong, vibrant and thriving city for all. That is something every New Orleanian should want. As the Department of Labor points out, union jobs improve pay, working conditions and quality of life, while also raising the wage floor for all workers, even for non-unionized ones. Now more than ever, workers across the country are organizing for union protections, and for good reasons. Wealth disparities in this country continue to grow. We know that “trickle-down” economics and tax breaks to the wealthiest won’t improve our wages or reduce inflation.

The Right to Collective Bargaining Ordinance is an enormous win for city workers and for economic justice, which, as we know, is deeply lacking in our city. We believe that by having a strong voice at the job through our unions, city workers can win better working conditions, pay equity and dignity in our workplaces that will strengthen the services we provide to the public.

Lee M. Abbott is a New Orleans Public Library employee and communications coordinator with the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee.