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 Occupy Wall Street provided assistance, using relief as a form of social justice organizing, when the state apparatus was unable to help residents. This “solidarity not charity” is the kind of non-state, nonhierarchical relief model designed by groups such as  Common Ground Relief in New Orleans.


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 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 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, Boston Review, and many other outlets.