March 2020 Hard RockIt has been more than four months since the Oct. 12, 2019, collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel, which was under construction in New Orleans. Socialist Resurgence talked to Mike Howells, a local activist and supporter of the Revolutionary Socialist Network (RSN). Mike has been an active organizer of the community response to the collapse and the deaths of three construction workers. The bodies of two of the workers, Jose Ponce Arreola, 63, and Quinnyon Wimberly, 36, remain on site as officials claim that recovery of the dead is too dangerous.  The body of Anthony Magrette, 49, was recovered. 

Socialist Resurgence: Can you describe for readers what happened on Oct. 12? How did the collapse happen?

Mike Howells: On Saturday, Oct. 12, the under-construction New Orleans Hard Rock Hotel, located on the 1000 block of Canal Street, the city’s main drag, partially collapsed, leaving three workers dead and 30 injured. Anthony Magrette,  Quinnyon Wimberly, and Jose Arreola perished in the disaster. The cause of the partial collapse appears to be a decision by the management of the project, Citadel Builders LLC, to have metal supports for the 18th floor removed just three days, Oct. 7, after the pouring of concrete. Industry standards recommend that the supports for the freshly laid concrete of a floor of a building under construction remain in place for three weeks. Two days before the hotel building collapse, a construction worker videotaped footage showing signs of the 18th floor buckling.

The conduct of New Orleans building inspectors assigned with the responsibility of monitoring the Hard Rock Hotel project contributed to the disaster. GPS records show that city building inspectors did not appear at the Hard Rock Hotel construction site in the months leading up to its partial collapse, though official inspection records state otherwise. The ultimate boss of the inspectors is Democratic Mayor Latoya Cantrell. Cantrell’s mayoral election campaign received $70,000 in donations from the businesses behind the Hard Rock Hotel project, the 1031 Canal Street Development LLC. The “appearance” of a conflict of interest regarding the city’s handling of the Hard Rock Hotel project is clear to all who bother to open their eyes.

The firm that was in charge of the actual building of the Hard Rock Hotel, Citadel Construction, has, even in comparison to most competing area construction firms, a miserable track record as an employer. It proudly boasts to potential customers that it uses only non-union labor. This anti-union hiring policy hampers its ability to find the competent skilled labor construction projects needed since many, though not all, of these workers are unionized. The lack of an organized labor presence in the Hard Rock Hotel workplace no doubt made it easier for Citadel supervisors to save money and speed up production by cutting corners on safety measures.

SR: Describe the Committee for Transparency of the Hard Rock Disaster and who is involved. What demands are you raising?

Howells: The Committee for Transparency of the Hard Rock Disaster does remain active in the struggle to secure justice for all victims of the Hard Rock Disaster.  It has brought together family members who lost a loved one in the Hard Rock Hotel collapse with local militants and other working-class locals who are outraged at what transpired on 1031 Canal Street, the site of the disaster, and how City Hall has responded to the disaster.

The Committee has been in the forefront of the demand that the New Orleans city council hold public hearings on the Hard Rock Disaster and provide those adversely impacted by it with the opportunity to address the council and mayor in person.  The activities of the Committee have included general meetings, educationals, protests, boycott actions, and press conferences. At present the Committee is focusing on taking steps to enable the struggle to effectively adapt to the radically changed conditions for organizing brought by the rise of the COVID-19 epidemic.

SR: What has been the response of the labor movement? How have the building trades responded?

Howells: The Southeast Louisiana Building and Construction Trades Council has intervened on the matter of the Hard Rock Disaster in an on and off fashion, but to little effect. The Building Trades Council, in collaboration with the DSA and several local non-profits, has held a candlelight vigil and, later, a Justice for Hard Rock Workers protest. Recent inactivity on the issue indicates the local AFL-CIO gave up on contributing to the Hard Rock Disaster struggle long before the COVID-19 epidemic took center stage here.

Photo: Scott Threlkeld / NOLA.com