Labor unions bring real rebuilding assistance to Puerto Rico
Teamsters and other union members participate in hurricane rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico. | Teamsters Joint Council 16

Unionists on the extended relief mission to hurricane-smashed Puerto Rico call the situation there, three weeks after Maria hit, dire. And the head of the Puerto Rico Labor Federation is blunt about the attitude of the U.S. government: “They want us to die.”

The group, including doctors and nurses from California and Oregon, are just a few of more than 300 unionists who headed for the island in a mission the AFL-CIO assembled. They spoke in an October 13 AFL-CIO-arranged conference call.

What the union volunteers found when they arrived, and still find, is absolute devastation, with a lack of food, no running water, virtually no electricity outside the capital of San Juan and spotty cellphone service, if it works at all. Volunteers came from unions with nurses, the Teamsters, the building trades, and others to clear roads, repair crumbling structures, and more.

Despite all the efforts, fallen trees still block numerous roads, preventing relief shipments from getting through, and many mountainous communities are virtually isolated, reached only by union teams in small vans dodging those and other obstacles. The Auto Workers’ engineer members had to repair eight of one city’s 12 bulldozers disabled by the hurricane so that roads could be cleared.

By contrast, Republican President Donald Trump blames the Puerto Ricans for their own problems and threatens to cut off all federal aid to the commonwealth, whose 3.4 million residents are all U.S. citizens.  But three weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, “This is a man-made disaster,” retorts Dr. Jim Packard, a Service Employees member from Oakland, Calif.

While Trump praises the efforts of his Federal Emergency Management Agency, the unionists speak of long lines outside FEMA relief centers, which close at 2 pm daily regardless of how many people still wait for aid, demands they fill out 14-page forms online in an island whose Internet service has been cut off due to lack of power, and people collapsing in the heat as they wait for hours.

And outside San Juan, in many cases FEMA isn’t there at all, the volunteers said. The unionists are.

“We have been the first responders” to the disaster “and it has broken our heart,” said Jose Rodriguez-Baez, the Puerto Rico federation president. “It’s not fair that after 21 days” after the hurricane “this is happening.

“And there has been a negative response” from Washington, he added. “We have to announce this as one, with a loud and thunderous voice: They want us to die.”

The union volunteers there described a number of dire scenes, especially outside San Juan.

Packard, who normally treats the homeless at Highland Hospital in Oakland, gave the example of an 87-year-old woman he saw in a rural town in the mountains. She lives alone and has no transportation. “She’s a sweet, calm and frail lady” who first told Packard to check on her neighbors down the road. But when he started asking specific questions, she confessed she hadn’t eaten in three days, that the next relief package wasn’t due for a week “and she started to break down.”

“We’re trying to give people a little bit of a lifeline until more help can get there,” Packard added.

Besides food and potable water – the amounts limited by the carrying capacity of the volunteers’ vans and the roads clogged with fallen trees – the medical volunteers from SEIU, National Nurses United and the American Federation of Teachers nurses’ sector are also teaching people about methods to purify water and otherwise avoid potentially deadly diseases, such as cholera.

“People are somehow surviving on the food and medicines that are on hand,” said AFT nurse Erin Calera, quoting a colleague who went to another mountain town. “But there’s no running water and now electricity. We provided urgent care where we could. But there is a public health crisis coming.”

“It’s outrageous that we’re leaving our fellow Americans like this,” Calera exclaimed.

“People in Puerto Rico are dying,” declared National Nurses United Vice President Kathy Kennedy of Sacramento, one of the 50-plus RNs her union sent in its Registered Nurses Response Network team.

Union members unload relief supplies in Puerto Rico. | Teamsters

They won’t be counted in the official death statistics from the storms, she added, because they’re dying of diseases, including heart attacks from overwork in rebuilding shattered houses to diabetics who can’t receive their insulin because they can’t find an open pharmacy, to people dying from being forced to drink contaminated water, because no fresh water is available.

“We go into a community and all they ask for is food and water,” she added. The federal government “didn’t do this” – fail to respond – to the stateside victims of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, which hit Florida and Texas just before Puerto Rico was clobbered. “Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., and if President Trump wants to cut off FEMA, that’s ridiculous.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been outspoken in pleading for aid, and directly challenging Trump’s characterizations, contrasted his attitude with that of the unions: “The compassion and great heart has strengthened our body and touched our soul. Where others fail, you give us hope and you did not run away. Your presence here reassures us” of “the nature of the American spirit.”

“We had nurses, doctors, engineers, truck drivers. They came together on three days’ notice to step up in the recovery effort and they’ve been working around the clock,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, who led the initial planeload of volunteers and whose office set up the conference call.

The unionists’ aid will continue long-term, she added. The fed plans to send more ships with goods and water Puerto Ricans need and union volunteers will stay as long as necessary.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.