Puerto Rico’s plight, Trump’s response dominates a day at AFL-CIO
These nurses are part of a multi-union, two-week disaster relief effort for Puerto Rico, organized by the AFL-CIO. | Flickr/National Nurses United

ST. LOUIS—Puerto Rico’s plight, a month after Hurricane Maria smashed the island commonwealth to smithereens, dominated a day at the AFL-CIO convention in St. Louis. It also gave the unionists there a good reason to trash the GOP Trump administration’s response, or lack of it, to the disaster.

One after another, unionists stood up in the hall at America’s Center on October 22, to describe what they found when their plane with more than 300 volunteers – union nurses and MDs, Electrical Workers, Fire Fighters, Teachers, Operating Engineers and others – landed in San Juan four weeks before.

And they contrasted it with Trump’s plaudits for himself and for his Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA has alternated between not providing basic supplies, such as food, medicine and water, and requiring residents whose homes were wrecked to go through pages of forms on the Internet to apply for aid, on an island that still lacks electricity for the most part.

And FEMA is offering loans, not grants, to people on an island commonwealth whose official jobless rate, even before the hurricane hit, exceeded 12 percent. And Puerto Rico has been in a recession starting in 2006.

The union volunteers started their work in Puerto Rico “even before the government had responded,” said Jose Rodriguez-Baez, the commonwealth’s AFL-CIO president. “They were taking care of the sick and bringing water and food to those who need it.

“But as you can see,” he warned, “It’s necessary to have a lot more help to stop a humanitarian crisis.”  The big problem, Rodriguez-Baez said, is lack of clean water, which could lead to “a real health crisis” afflicting people forced to drink contaminated water for lack of an alternative.

“There has been no reaction from FEMA and the government to take care of those who really need it, especially in the mountains,” he explained.

Rodriguez-Baez was mild, compared to some of the others.

Bonnie Castillo, who headed National Nurses United’s 50-nurse Registered Nurses Relief Network volunteers to Puerto Rico, said her members “had to turn into first responders” rescuing people from the devastation they found.

“They found dehydrated babies lying in the arms of their mothers.” – Bonnie Castillo | Flickr/National Nurses United

“There was no water, no food, no roofs” on houses “and mold was beginning to set in. They found dehydrated babies lying in the arms of their mothers. And water is now like gold in Puerto Rico.”

Meanwhile, Trump gave himself and FEMA an “A+” for their efforts in helping the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. He also blamed the Puerto Ricans for throwing the federal budget out of whack. And as one unionist who listened to the press conference featuring Trump and Puerto Rico’s governor told Press Associates, “Trump used the ‘I’ word 18 times.”

“Every one of our returning nurses is saying ‘Where is our government?’” Castillo replied.

“You can’t be human and not be affected by devastation” of the people in the island’s mountainous interior, added Reggie Davis of the Utility Workers.

Though the unionists did not say so, Trump’s reaction to Puerto Rico shares one fact with his reaction to the neo-Nazi white-separatist riot in Charlottesville, Va., and his stands during the 2016 campaign: The victims and/or targets are minorities. In Puerto Rico, they’re Latino Americans. In the campaign, they were women, African-Americans, journalists, Asian-Americans and Jews.

“Some political leaders are seeking to take advantage” of Maria’s devastation, said Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, presenting the AFL-CIO resolution demanding Trump administration positive action to aid Puerto Rico. Instead, for the administration, it’s “an opportunity to carry out an anti-union agenda… The time for political posturing has long since passed,” he commented.

“Creating greater hardship should not be an objective in dealing with these conditions.”

The delegates approved a strong resolution demanding the federal government really step forward to aid Puerto Rico. It also said Wall Street should forgive Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt.

“I’m proud the labor movement has stepped up, but it can’t do it alone,” Roberts concluded.


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.