Labor Day 2005—A Sober Celebration of Our Holiday
Under the Pall of Katrina

by Bill Onasch

Following is an edited version of the author’s article as posted Sept. 2, 2005, on Labor Advocate Online.

It’s that time of year again, when those of us in the USA who do the work (and those retirees, like me, who used to do the work) get our very own holiday. Now, there are holidays that are supposed to be joyous celebrations, like Independence Day. Others have a more somber theme, such as Memorial Day. We usually have to combine elements of both in Labor Day. But this first Monday in September finds grimness outweighing jubilation by a long shot.

It’s hard to put out of one’s mind the horror and suffering on the Gulf Coast—above all in New Orleans—resulting from Hurricane Katrina. The human tragedy associated with natural disasters is one thing. Such events are inevitable and we try to cope and move on.

But Katrina is not just another of the destructive storms that have affected that part of the world even before there were humans living in their path. The events surrounding this hurricane were compounded by a number of practices and injustices that are part and parcel of capitalism in the stage of “globalization.”

First of all, there is strong scientific evidence to support the assertion by many that the frequency and severity of tropical storms have been magnified by the effects of global warming. The dikes in New Orleans were designed to withstand the winds, rains, and tides of a Category Three hurricane—which is pretty strong. When Katrina struck it had just been downgraded from a Category Five to a Category Four. The steadily warming waters of the Gulf—part of the global warming transformation of our planet—is the prime suspect in generating Katrina’s surprising destructive force; in fact, the strength of this hurricane was unprecedented in recorded history.

New Orleans was also made more vulnerable by the environmental and infrastructure impact of the national curse of urban sprawl.

As in most cities, urban sprawl was largely fueled by “white flight.” Once the most integrated city in the South, New Orleans now has an African American population of about seventy percent. Racism led to the result that those trapped in the low-lying urban core are overwhelmingly Black.

Both the dike maintenance and emergency response resources had been severely weakened by reactionary cuts in all useful public spending.

A substantial part of the National Guard, whose main mission has evolved to be a key component in dealing with natural disasters, had been called up for duty in, or related to, the unjust war in Iraq. When troops finally arrived on the scene—four or five days after the storm—they were ordered in with automatic weapons in hand. They were made ready to secure New Orleans, against exaggerated fears of “riotous looters,” in the same fashion as Falluja.

In addition to the great human suffering and dislocation, in addition to the environmental nightmare, there is economic damage on a scale never before seen outside of war. No one knows when the Gulf ports may be open again. No one knows when normal rail and barge traffic may resume. Still unknown is the extent of damage to the oil, gas, chemical, and fishing industries—not to speak of tourism. All this will have an enormous impact on jobs and prices throughout the U.S. and even global economy.

Hurricanes can’t be prevented. But tiny Cuba, under constant attack by the same government in charge of response to Katrina, has shown that a society that truly cares about its people can greatly alleviate the kind of collateral damage we see on the Gulf Coast.

All classes lost something to Katrina. But working people, especially the dark-skinned and poorest among us, have taken the most brutal beating in a disaster both natural and unnatural.

So celebration of Labor Day this year is tempered by our grief for our sisters and brothers devastated by Katrina. But our grief is also accompanied by anger at the crimes and criminal negligence of the ruling class and its government. Both of these powerful emotions should be brought under control and focused to motivate a renewed commitment to organize and act, to take power away from the greedy and incompetent Establishment rulers before they do even greater and more lasting damage to the world we live in.