By SHERI GASSAWAY
San Juan – More than 300 highly skilled union members flew to Puerto Rico Oct. 4 to help with disaster relief and rebuilding in the aftermath of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria.
The union-sponsored relief mission was part of a team effort between the AFL-CIO, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the Air Line Pilots Association, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and United Airlines.
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a category 4 storm with sustained winds of up to 155 mph. It knocked out power to the entire island and caused widespread flooding. As of Sept. 30, the majority of Puerto Rico still lacked power and clean water.
President Donald Trump, who’s been criticized for slow aid response, waited nearly two weeks to survey the damage to the U.S. territory and while there, downplayed the situation because only 16 people had died from the event compared to Hurricane Katrina, which he called a “real catastrophe where hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people died.” The death toll in Puerto Rico has since risen to 34.
UNION MEMBERS TO THE RESCUE
“The working families of Puerto Rico are our brothers and sisters, and this incredible partnership will bring skilled workers to the front lines to deliver supplies, care for victims and rebuild Puerto Rico,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “Our movement is at its best when we work together during times of great need.
“But we are even better when we find common ground and partner with business and industry on solutions to lift up our communities. This endeavor is entirely about working people helping working people in every way possible. In times of great tragedy, our country comes together, and we are committed to doing our part to assist the people of Puerto Rico.”
The workers who boarded the jet in Newark, N.J. on Oct. 4 represented 20 different unions from 17 states. They are coordinating with the Puerto Rico Federation of Labor and the city of San Juan on various efforts, which include clearing road blockages, caring for hospital patients, delivering emergency supplies and restoring power.
ANSWERING THE CALL FOR HELP
Union members met with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz after they arrived. On behalf of San Juan’s 350,000 residents and Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people, she thanked them for listening to the island’s needs and answering the call for help.
“Lives are at stake and people are dying, and I’m not being dramatic,” Cruz said. “Our brothers and sisters from the electrical unions know this better than anyone else, but tell me what happens when your hospital loses power and the generator fails, and you’re stuck to a respirator gasping for air. You die.”
A LIFE-CHANGING DIFFERENCE
United Airlines donated one of its largest planes for the journey, a Boeing 777, and union pilots, flight attendants and IAM-represented United Airlines ramp employees volunteered their time to assist in the effort.
More than 35,000 pounds of emergency relief supplies such as food, water and essential equipment were transported to San Juan on the flight. The aircraft returned to Newark with evacuees from Puerto Rico who were provided with complimentary seats as part of United’s ongoing humanitarian relief efforts there.
UNIONS AND BUSINESSES WORKING TOGETHER
IAM General Vice President Sito Pantoja said the flight carried not only much-needed supplies and skilled union labor, “but also the love and support of more than 33,000 IAM members at United who will continue helping the people of Puerto Rico recover.”
“When our communities call out for help, we can come together and solve the biggest challenges by summoning the best of ourselves. We’ve answered this call many times over the past couple months, and Puerto Rico is no exception,” said Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines.
“This flight embodies how working Americans, union leaders and business can unite with a shared sense of purpose to make a life-changing difference at this critical moment. We are deeply grateful to all of the first responders, highly skilled professionals and United employees who are going above and beyond to come to the aid of Puerto Rico.”
Unions participating in the Puerto Rico relief effort
Skilled worker volunteers represented by 20 unions from 17 states are participating in the Puerto Rico relief effort, including:
• Cement Masons
• Operating Engineers
• Utility Workers