By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft
Politicians, and in some cases the public, too often take potshots at public employees especially union members, we are once again reminded of the incredibly important work they do for our health and safety. Hurricane Sandy has highlighted the significant role that union members play in our lives.
Many union members are also first responders – police officers, firefighters, and EMTs. Along with their everyday heroics of keeping our cities, families, and friends safe, disasters such as Hurricane Sandy show them once again marching into danger and risking their lives to rescue those stranded and in need of help. Firefighters battle fire after fire from broken gas lines that have destroyed entire blocks and conduct search and rescue operations to find victims of the hurricane.
Besides the police officers, firefighters, and EMTs who make up the first responders, other union members such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are working to restore power and fix infrastructure up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Teamster members are clearing trees, repairing rail tracks and cleaning flood damage from the streets. Sanitation workers are working long hours removing debris from roadways, breaking up tree limbs, and removing hazardous obstructions for the public’s safety. Nurses in many of the affected areas stayed and watched over the sick as the storm raged and in some cases helped evacuate patients when hospitals lost power and their generators failed. Transportation workers including New York City bus drivers transported patients to hospitals.
Pulling together in tough times and helping fellow Americans is what many of these union members do in times of crisis. In addition, nearly 2,000 utility workers from around the country are making their way to the affected states.
The difference in federal disaster relief in presidential administrations is also striking. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, during Hurricane Katrina, was hopelessly ineffectual and weak in responding. During Hurricane Sandy, we see a very different agency. More than 500 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services workers have provided emergency medical care and public health assistance. The Pentagon is said to have mobilized and deployed 10,000 National Guard troops in 13 states including 10 Blackhawk helicopters, sent 100 pumps to New York to siphon water from tunnels, and they have also sent 120 medical personnel and 573 vehicles to storm revenged areas.
We owe a large and heartfelt thank you to our public employees and union members for running into the face of danger, rescuing our fellow citizens in times of crisis, and helping to put communities back together in the wake of natural disasters, fires, terrorist attacks and accidents. That is why the NCL finds the tendency – among some elected officials and in the media – to malign public workers because they negotiate well-deserved wages and benefits for their members – so offensive.