Union Members Donate Time and Expertise in Puerto Rico Hurricane Recovery Efforts

Liz Shuler
Oct 7, 2017 · 4 min read
Virgilio Escobar lost his house in Loíza, Puerto Rico. Union volunteers will help him to rebuild it.

First it was Harvey, then Irma, then Maria. The Texas Gulf Coast, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been hit hard by hurricanes, devastating people’s homes and lives — but not our spirits.

In recent weeks, working people and our unions have stepped up to the challenges of rescuing and rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters. Last month, I wrote about the first responders in Texas and Florida, and now, I want to share my experience flying to Puerto Rico with a plane full of courageous and skilled union women and men, eager to help the island get back on its feet.

“Who are we? Union…!” the chants were heard throughout Newark Liberty International Airport as more than 300 skilled tradespeople, health care professionals and transportation workers boarded a plane and departed for San Juan, Puerto Rico, to volunteer time and bring needed skills to the relief efforts underway on the island.

There was exhilaration in the air as truck drivers greeted nurses and electricians took selfies with pilots and flight attendants. This is the first time a brigade of union sisters and brothers have come together for a mission like this, and the feeling of solidarity was palpable.

I spoke to so many volunteers who jumped at the chance to deploy because they wanted to help in any way they could — workers helping workers during their time of need. Many have family on the island and, therefore, felt a deeply personal connection to the mission. Upon arrival at the airport in San Juan, local residents chanted “Sí, se puede.” Tears streamed down the faces of many volunteers. We felt both a sense of relief and also anxiety about what we would see and how quickly we could get to work.

The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, greeted us as we made our way to the convention center. She was thrilled to see the cadre of skilled workers and said, “I put out the call for help, and who listened? The unions.”

The conditions in the sleeping areas were clean and safe — but, let’s be honest, sleeping on a cot is never easy. An operating engineer told me he went to roll over and his cot collapsed during the night, so he made a bed on the floor. Thinking about how little sleep people would get over the next two weeks, far removed from the comforts we so often take for granted, made their contribution seem even more heroic.

I traveled with nurses and doctors to the town of Loiza, a seaside community especially hard-hit by Hurricanes Irma and then Maria. Watching them prepare their team and come up with a plan on the fly to assess residents at an elder care facility was nothing short of amazing. Within minutes, they set up a triage center in an office and sent small teams out to individual residents’ apartment to do health assessments, prescribed medications and provided care for elderly, low-income people in need. This is only one example of how union professionals, most who’ve never worked together before, used their specialized skills to save lives.

We use the word “solidarity” a lot in the labor movement. The idea that when we come together, we are stronger. On this relief mission, it was solidarity in the truest sense of the word. Working people united around a common purpose — to provide help for those in need. It didn’t matter where you were from, what political party you belonged to or what type of work you did, you felt connected through your union and a shared sense of purpose. It was America’s labor movement at its best. America at its best.

There are numerous examples of unions stepping up to help their members in crisis, such as setting up disaster relief funds and providing direct assistance with clearing debris and cleaning up people’s homes.

Union members are usually the first to respond during a disaster — firefighters, EMTs and police run toward danger, not away; power linemen work 24/7 to restore power and keep hospitals running; doctors, nurses and other health professionals save lives; communications workers put in overtime to rebuild essential communication networks; construction tradespeople repair homes, businesses and critical infrastructure; seafarers, longshoremen and maritime tradespeople load cargo on Federal Emergency Management Agency and commercial ships; drivers keep relief supplies moving to affected communities; public servants remove debris and trash to keep the streets sanitary; and flight attendants, pilots, machinists, transport workers and working people in other airline crafts make sure people arrive to their destinations safely. These are just a few examples of the dedicated and hardworking union members who answer the call when disaster strikes. They aren’t looking for glory — it’s just what they do.

Liz Shuler

Written by

Secretary-Treasurer of AFL-CIO We are all better when we join together for fairness on the job!

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