It's not exactly business as usual when the president of the ironworkers’ union comes to New Orleans. But, then again, not much is business as usual since Katrina hit on Aug. 29th.

“Everybody has been scrambling about what is going to happen with reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast area,” said Joseph Hunt from his hotel room in New Orleans last week. He had just returned from a meeting held at the Metairie, Louisiana office of the Plumbers, Marine and Steamfitters Local 60, where representatives of all the area building trades had been exchanging ideas about how to create a stronger presence in the area.

Ed Sullivan, president of the Building Trades Dept. of the AFL-CIO, has appointed a subcommittee to meet with local representatives and get their input on how the union can best work with community groups and politicians to train local people to meet labor demands.

In New Orleans, where the population has sunk by about 300,000 since Katrina, “Everybody knows there will be a vast shortage of workers, but the question is what are we going to do about it,” Hunt said. “One of the long-term goals of the building trades is hopefully to build a community-based program so that we can recruit people who are from the area to increase opportunities for them and, at the same time, expand the union density and base of all the building trades in the area.”

It’s no secret that the building trades have a very weak presence (less than 10%) in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. “All across the south, the union density is a lot less than what it is in northern, traditionally more industrialized states,” Hunt said. And nationwide, most unions have lost members in recent years, he added.

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast is a union opportunity. “We are already seeing what looks like exploitation of workers who have been imported in the area with no benefits,” says Hunt. The building trades hope to provide a plan that will benefit local or displaced local workers with good-paying jobs, health benefits and pensions, while strengthening its ranks.

Even though much of the work is still in the cleanup phase, skilled workers will be in demand in the very near future.

The committee is also hoping to ascertain the best methods to draw current union members who are displaced and out of touch, as well as attract new members to its apprentice programs and training schools. The committee will present its findings January 17 in San Diego at a meeting of the building trades presidents.

After touring the area, Hunt said he was surprised by what he saw. “When you drive through neighborhoods and you see miles and miles of homes and streets that are deserted, trash and debris everywhere, and it crosses all economic lines... There are half million dollar homes completely vacant. We drove all day, and it’s just amazing. Where are all the people? Where are they living? Will they ever be able to come back?”

Hunt also drove along the Mississippi coast and saw slabs where houses stood just a few months ago and barges that had been pushed by the storm surge across the highway, crushing everything in their paths. “You don’t understand the depth of it until you see it firsthand,” Hunt said.