"We are New Orleans”: A Workers’ Bill of Rights Finds Common Ground

“When we came up with the Workers’ Bill of Rights, it wasn’t just for one group, it was for all.”

Sarah Jaffe

A waiter working at a restaurant in New Orleans in 2021. A new effort to secure a Workers' Bill of Rights for workers in New Orleans is finding common ground. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s government made headlines in recent weeks for passing a slate of right-wing policies that range from requiring the Ten Commandments be displayed in every classroom to eliminating lunch breaks for young workers. Other priorities, like banning collective bargaining for most public sector workers, didn’t pass this time around but may come back to haunt working people soon enough. 

If that’s not enough, the state already has preemption laws on the books that prevent local ordinances that would raise the minimum wage, provide paid leave, require prevailing wage for workers on city contracts, or regulate the gig economy.

So what are workers in Louisiana, particularly in its most progressive city, New Orleans, to do?

So what are workers in Louisiana, particularly in its most progressive city, New Orleans, to do?

Despite some of the least favorable conditions for labor in the country, workers here have been organizing — and making gains. The most recent victory came from Tulane’s non-tenured faculty, and workers have been pushing for union rights and safer, better conditions in workplaces from hospitals to dollar stores. And now workers in New Orleans, organizing with Step Up Louisiana, are campaigning for a Workers’ Bill of Rights in the city, an initiative which will be on the ballot in November.

Workers in New Orleans, organizing with Step Up Louisiana, are campaigning for a Workers’ Bill of Rights in the city, an initiative which will be on the ballot in November.

It was those dollar store workers whose campaign for better conditions sparked the idea for a local ordinance, explained Kisha Edwards, operations and membership coordinator for Step Up Louisiana. During conversations with local church leaders and members of the City Council, they began to discuss ways to incentivize businesses to do better by their employees. We were thinking of a grading system attached to the bill of rights,” Edwards explained, to let customers know that workers in a particular place have safe and secure working conditions, health benefits and paid leave. 

The key issues, added David Williams, a Dollar General worker organizing with Step Up, are the opportunity for workers to have a living wage, the right to heal, when they need time off or need to spend time with their family, the right to organize where they don’t have to feel threatened by anything. Also, affordable healthcare coverage because everything costs, inflation is real.”

After the early conversations, Step Up held listening sessions around the city, asking people what they would want in a workers’ bill of rights. Britain Forsyth, the legislative coordinator for Step Up, joined the organization in December 2022 and began working on crafting a proposal from the results of those listening sessions. The plan involves creating a Healthy Workplace designation for employers who uphold those four principles: a minimum of $15 per hour wage, paid leave for health, family, bereavement and holiday time, the right to organize a union, and employer-provided health insurance. They also want to build a workers’ commission to hear complaints by workers and to hold bad bosses accountable.

Details, Forsyth said, are still being hammered out. We’ve been working a little bit with the Office of Human Rights and Equity and talking to them about what’s possible.” The Healthy Workplace designation would be managed by the city health department, who have been, he said, enthusiastic partners. A lot of people, he said, have felt hopeless about the political situation in the city because of the preemption laws and the election of Jeff Landry as governor, and so public officials have jumped at the chance to do something positive, even if they have to rely on incentivizing good behavior more than punishing or banning bad.

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Our city council has really been eager to pass this,” Forsyth said. Their leadership on this has been great because it’s showing unity — something that they may not always have.” Edwards added, That’s the message I believe that the city council is sending, that our city deserves more and we deserve better for our workers.”

But the bill of rights will have to be passed by the people, with a ballot initiative to amend the city charter. And so Step Up is preparing for a campaign that will run throughout the summer and into election season. They have a year-round canvassing operation already that can be turned to this work, and plan to dedicate organizers to the issue. They also intend, Forsyth said, to mobilize business owners who are supportive, both as part of the campaign and to make sure that anything put forward in the bill is actually achievable for business owners who want to do right by their employees. There will be rallies and community events, and collaboration with the campaign to pass a housing trust fund, which will also be on the ballot in November.

But Forsyth is hopeful that the measure will pass with broad support. I am sure there are bad actor bosses who would be upset about this passing,” he said. But there are a lot of things in New Orleans that have become non-controversial, and the things that we have on here are some of them.”

“I am sure there are bad actor bosses who would be upset about this passing,” he said. “But there are a lot of things in New Orleans that have become non-controversial, and the things that we have on here are some of them.”

Louisiana has passed some progressive legislation in recent years, Edwards noted. With the state’s fair chance” hiring law and New Orleans’s ban the box” ordinance, formerly incarcerated people have been given better access to jobs, she said, but if those jobs don’t pay a living wage and allow people to afford decent housing, they aren’t truly sustainable. 

Our society sees that lengthy punishment, what does it do? What does it do for the human being? You’re deteriorating a human being,” she said. That understanding has been spreading in recent years as the movement against mass incarceration grows, but, Edwards noted, when people are released from prison, they often come out with health issues that are harder to tend in the low-end jobs that they are often relegated to. Without healthcare, without paid leave, it is too easy to lose a job; without a job, you can’t pay the rent, and the constant stress makes those health issues worse.

New Orleans, she noted, is a tourist city, which relies on service sector workers to provide a good experience for visitors. If our workers aren’t treated right, of course they can’t go to work and perform at their best if they don’t have an affordable place to live, if they don’t have livable wages.”

“If our workers aren't treated right, of course they can't go to work and perform at their best if they don't have an affordable place to live, if they don't have livable wages.”

For the dollar store workers, safety has been a core concern, and Edwards noted that the right to paid leave would incentivize employers to pay more attention. Robberies and violence have been common at the discount retailers, enough that the issue has been central to their organizing.

The right to heal that the bill of rights includes is drawn expansively for just this reason: to include the right to time off to recover from a traumatic experience in the workplace itself. This would send a message to businesses and employers in the city that we are not taking it anymore. We’re standing up and we’re fighting back,” she said. We demand action. We demand a difference. We want a change in our city.”

Visitors to New Orleans come from all over the world, Forsyth noted, and the Healthy Workplace rating could be something that businesses use to promote themselves to visitors, similar to the way that LGBT-friendly businesses market themselves as safe and welcoming places for queer and trans visitors. After all, no one wants to be served food made by a sick chef, but few of us have any way to know what working conditions are like when we visit a strange place.

“You've always got to dedicate yourself to make things right and make things better,” Williams said. “When we came up with the Workers' Bill of Rights, it wasn't just for one group, it was for all. We are New Orleans.”

To Williams, it feels good for New Orleans to potentially be a leader in passing progressive legislation that can be upheld even with a deeply hostile state government. When you have this Workers’ Bill of Rights in place in the city, it’s a domino effect,” he said. Somebody asked me one day, What is New Orleans?’ I say, simple. It’s the people. It’s the people that make New Orleans, New Orleans. It is the culture. There’s so many names to call us, and most of it is the Big Easy, but if I’m being honest, there’s nothing really easy about it because you’ve always got to hustle.”

You’ve always got to dedicate yourself to make things right and make things better,” Williams said. When we came up with the Workers’ Bill of Rights, it wasn’t just for one group, it was for all. We are New Orleans.”

Sarah Jaffe is a writer and reporter living in New Orleans and on the road. She is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone; Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, and the forthcoming From the Ashes: Grief and Revolution in a World on Fire, all from Bold Type Books. Her journalism covers the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets, and her writing has been published in The Nation, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and many other outlets. She is a columnist at The Progressive and a contributing writer at In These Times. She also co-hosts the Belabored podcast, with Michelle Chen, covering today’s labor movement, and Heart Reacts, with Craig Gent, an advice podcast for the collapse of late capitalism. Sarah has been a waitress, a bicycle mechanic, and a social media consultant, cleaned up trash and scooped ice cream and explained Soviet communism to middle schoolers. Journalism pays better than some of these. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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