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 around 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 of various sectors risked their lives that night to mitigate the disaster. That was the evening of Oct. 29, and it was only the beginning.
Sadly, it really isn’t enough to praise the bravery of firefighters, sanitation workers, utility workers and transit workers who braved the elements to save lives and struggle to make the city normal again. And it isn’t really enough to recognize that the grocery stores remained stocked and restaurants remained opened 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 shivering residents 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, the 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 get lambasted in the tabloids as being overcompensated and used as an excuse to raise fares and cut service by management. I wonder if the stranded millions left without service would think they’re overcompensated if they spent even one hour in the tunnels, cleaning up the debris with lethal electric currents and toxic elements around them.
Sick-day 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. While even parts of the city where power was out for days, these workers struggled to make sure residents had access to food and supplies not because of the kindness of their hearts but because even missing one shift would be a severe loss of income for them and their families. Yet our government, led by self-professed progressives, strike back at them when they reach for dignity and safety in the workplace, despite what they do for us.
Even the firefighters, whose service is often considered sacrosanct, have to constantly battle proposed firehouse closings due to budget cuts. As Uniformed Fire Officers Association Al Hagan, an FDNY 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 the following fact. An Emergency Medical Technician earns a salary of less than $46,000 after five years on the job.
What all these workers have in common is that the dominant me-first rhetoric of fiscal conservatism is that they are somehow making too much and their contributions to society don’t compensate for their earnings, unlike, say, bankers and industrialists. Hurricane Sandy should be society’s wake-up call.
Obviously, all of these workers couldn’t get the job done alone. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, community groups such as CAAAV, Good Old Lower East Side and supporters of Occupy Wall Street took the noble route of providing direct assistance, using relief as a form of social justice organizing, when the state apparatus was unable, or maybe even unwilling, to help residents. This “solidarity not charity” is the kind of non-state, nonhierarchical relief model designed by groups such as the New Orleans-based Common Ground Relief; one of its self-proclaimed leaders, Scott Crow, took to social media to proclaim that in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy this kind of grassroots, mutual aid was flexing its muscle, and is superiority, to state assistance.
It is a nice idea, but it can really only go so far. Yes, community groups can and should organize outside of the normal channels of the state to provide assistance, these groups just aren’t big enough, skilled enough or monied enough to do the bigger jobs: 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 terms Fox News would call socialistic, this means taking more income away from top earners, and putting into the systems that keep these workers working, as well as safe and healthy to response and serve another day.
Call it socialism if you want. But when an EMT risks her life to save yours in a storm, maybe socialism won’t seem so bad.
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, especially working people, who value what workers of all sectors did during the storm. “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 New York state.”
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 as the state and the role of workers.
All of these workers, unionized and otherwise, should unite behind their collective role in the hurricane 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.
But they have to act fast, before the impact of this crisis fades from memory. Samuelsen, a resident of south Brooklyn, noted that the areas near the waterfront still look like a war zone. As he was surveying the area after the storm, a cop approached him, realizing that he was one of the city’s labor leaders.
Samuelsen recalled what he said to him, referring to the bosses who praised their responders’ job during the storm: “You see all these cops on the looking out for looting, all the firefighters responding in Breezy Point, and the transit workers? Three weeks from now they’ll forget all about it and try to attack our pensions even more.”