On the night Hurricane Sandy made devastating landfall, I huddled in my north Brooklyn apartment with a police scanner tuned to the Fire Department’s dispatch channel, which broadcast harrowing tales from around the five boroughs: live electrical wires whipping around in the wind, backup power failing at hospitals and flooding in basements and subway tunnels.
I was safe at home, but workers of all stripes risked their lives that night to mitigate the disaster — and the night of the storm was only the beginning.
In the weeks since Sandy, we’ve heard plenty of paeans to the first responders in the media, from politicians and individuals — all of which are well deserved.
But it really isn’t enough to praise the bravery of the firefighters, sanitation workers, utility workers, transit workers and others who braved the elements to save lives and are still struggling to make the city normal again. And it isn’t enough to recognize that grocery stores remained stocked and restaurants remained open because of workers (many of them immigrants, many undocumented) who made their deliveries in dangerous conditions.
We have to give these acts of bravery actual, material value.
This summer, Consolidated Edison, which made $1 billion in profits last year, locked its unionized workers out — the same workers who scrambled to bring electricity back to thousands of shivering residents. Verizon workers, who struck last year for fair wages and benefits against the telecom giant, which made $2.4 billion in profits, worked long and dangerous shifts to restore the phones and internet so that storm survivors could connect with the outside world.
More than 30,000 New York subway and bus workers are now working without a contract because of stalled talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The tabloids have complained that they are overcompensated, and management uses their legitimate demands as an excuse to raise fares and cut service. I wonder if the millions of people stranded without subway access would think these workers are overcompensated if they spent even one hour in the tunnels, cleaning up debris in toxic, often dangerously electrified water.
As for Mayor Bloomberg, he insisted on docking city workers’ pay when they did not show up for work, even as trains were shut down and he admonished New Yorkers to stay off the streets — effectively forcing workers to pay for the crisis. Many hourly workers struggled to make sure that residents had access to food and supplies not simply out of the kindness of their hearts but because even missing one shift would mean a severe loss of income. Yet our government, led by self-professed progressives, strikes back at them when they reach for dignity and safety in the workplace, despite what they do for us.
Even firefighters, whose service has been praised to the skies ever since 9/11, constantly battle proposed firehouse closings due to budget cuts. As Capt. Al Hagan of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association said during a round of budget cuts several years ago, such cuts are always felt most acutely by low-income communities of color. New Yorkers watched FDNY Emergency Medical Service trucks provide critical care during and after the storm, but few know that emergency medical technicians earn less than $46,000 even after five years on the job.
What all these workers have in common is that the dominant “me-first” rhetoric of fiscal conservatism says 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 Occupy Sandy (a relief group formed by supporters of Occupy Wall Street) began providing direct assistance, using relief as a form of social-justice organizing when the state apparatus was unable — or unwilling — to help residents. This “solidarity, not charity” approach uses a non-state, nonhierarchical relief model designed by groups such as the New Orleans-based Common Ground Relief. One of that group’s 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 demonstrating its superiority to state assistance.
Mutual aid is a nice idea, but one that can only go so far. Yes, community groups can and should organize outside the normal channels of the state to provide assistance. But 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 sustained and broad investment in public works. This means taking more money away from top earners and putting it into the systems that keep the city running and its workers working.
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 their workers’ value in the aftermath of the storm.
“We’ve risen to the occasion dozens of times over the last decade,” he said 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 working New Yorkers 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 build on their collective role in the hurricane by uniting to push for real improvements like 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 the cop said to him, referring to the bosses who praised their responders’ job during the storm: “You see all these cops on the lookout 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.”