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For Sandy's Responders, Saying Thanks Isn't Enough
As I was huddled in my north Brooklyn apartment on the night Hurricane Sandy made devastating landfall, I kept my police scanner tuned to the Fire Department’s dispatch channel, which broadcasted harrowing tales from the five boroughs: live electrical wires whipping around in the wind, back-up power failing at hospitals and flooding in basements and in the subway system.
I was safe in the comfort of home, but workers in various sectors risked their lives to mitigate the disaster. That was the evening of October 29 and it was only the beginning.
Sadly, it really isn’t enough to praise the firefighters, sanitation workers, utility workers, and transit workers who braved the elements to save lives and struggled to make the city normal again. It isn’t really enough to recognize that the grocery stores remained stocked and restaurants remained open because of workers who made their deliveries in dangerous conditions (many of these workers are immigrants, many of them undocumented). We have to give them actual, material value.
This summer, Consolidated Edison, a profitable company, led a lockout of the same unionized utility workers who scrambled to bring electricity back to thousands of residents shivering in the dark. Verizon workers, who struck for fair wages and benefits against a profitable telecom giant, helped restore the phones and Internet, allowing people to connect with their loved ones.
Currently, more than 30,000 subway and bus workers are without a contract because of stalled talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. These are the same workers who got lambasted in the tabloids as being overcompensated and were used as an excuse to raise fares and cut service. I wonder if the millions without service would think they were overcompensated if they spent even one hour in the tunnels, cleaning up the debris with lethal electric currents and toxic elements around them.
Legislation which would ensure paid sick days for many workers in the retail and food sector, has been held up by New York City Council speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, as well as her political ally, Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, these workers struggled to make sure residents had access to food and supplies because missing even one shift would be a severe loss of income. Yet our government strikes back at them when they reach for dignity and safety in the workplace.
Even the firefighters, whose service is often considered sacrosanct, have to constantly battle proposed firehouse closings due to budget cuts. As Al Hagan, a New York Fire Department captain, said during a round of budget cuts several years ago, such cuts are always felt most acutely by low-income communities of color. And as New Yorkers watched FDNY Emergency Medical Service trucks provide critical care during and after the storm, I wonder if they considered that an Emergency Medical Technician earns a salary of less than $46,000 after 5 years on the job.
Obviously, all of these workers couldn’t get the job done alone. Community groups such as CAAAV, Good Old Lower East Side and supporters of
Yes, community groups can and should organize outside the normal channels of the state, but these groups aren’t big enough, skilled enough, or have enough money to do the bigger jobs like fixing the third rail on the subway, repairing downed power lines or transporting hazardous materials. For our modern city to address disaster, human-made and otherwise, we need a sustained and broad-investment in public works. To put it in terms Fox News would call socialist, this means taking more income away from top earners and putting it into the systems that keep these workers working.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 president John Samuelsen, who represents most subway and bus workers, isn’t optimistic about employers coming around to seeing the value of their workers after the storm.
“We’ve risen to the occasion dozens of times over the last decade,” he said when reached by phone. “In the blizzard two years ago transit workers dug the city out and put the economy back on track. Hurricane Irene, exact same thing. I don’t think the MTA will turn around and say, ‘You know what, the transit workers deserve a fair raise’.”
But he has faith in the people: “The working people absolutely appreciate what we do,” Samuelsen said. “It has to do with the political calculations that we can balance the budget on the backs of workers and not the richest residents of
If there is any silver lining to this disaster—other than that it may spark, finally, a serious discussion among those in power about how to address global climate change—it should be that we—as a city, state and country— have to reassess what we think of the role of workers.
All of these workers, unionized and otherwise, should unite to push for any number of things that are owed to them, whether it is sick-day legislation for retail and food service workers or a fair contract for transit workers.
Ari Paul is an independent journalist covering politics and labor. He has written for the Guardian, Dissent, The American Prospect,
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CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.