Andrew Pallotta: Union Solidarity After Natural Disasters

Oct 5, 2017

“An injury to one is an injury to all.”

That cry is a stirring call to action for the labor movement. Its message of solidarity – of reminding fellow workers that ‘we got your back’ – has reassured ordinary New Yorkers in political battles and resounded on picket lines during contract disputes for decades.

Now that phrase is taking on an entirely new meaning.

Monstrous hurricanes that ripped through the Caribbean, Texas and Florida have devastated communities and upended the lives of educators, students and working families. Two destructive storms tragically killed dozens and left thousands homeless. Harvey and Irma ruined possessions and extracted a devastating financial toll on ordinary working people like you and me. Many of these hurricane victims did not have insurance and are now facing financial disaster.

Public education was battered, too. Schools and colleges flooded. Many had their roofs blown apart by 150 mile per hour winds. And, weeks after the wrath of Harvey and Irma calmed, many of these public institutions in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida remain closed.

Tough times like this are an open invitation to the labor movement.

Many know of unions as fighters for fairness and opportunity. They know that unions, especially teachers unions, stand up for students and parents and take on the tough battles against the hedge-fund billionaires who want to profit off our public schools and colleges.

You know what else?

When natural disaster hits, unions do something else: Our first reaction is: How can we help? In the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, brave, unionized first responders helped save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

Unionized workers are leading the clean-up and recovery efforts as well.

NYSUT’s state and national affiliates in Texas and Florida have been identifying members, students and communities in need of everything from help cleaning up, to shelter, to new books and supplies for their schools. And, they’ve sprung into action.

Here in New York, the union I lead – New York State United Teachers -- is doing its part to assist our brothers and sister in labor, including some 16,000 NYSUT retirees who live in Florida.

NYSUT has activated its Disaster Relief Fund to aid union members in places hit hard by Irma and Harvey. Set up after Katrina in 2005, our fund has so far distributed more than 4,000 grants totaling about $2 million to help ease the pain of union families suffering from the effects of these disasters. In 2012 after Superstorm Sandy, NYSUT members contributed more than $700,000 to help their fellow New Yorkers on Long Island, New York City and communities downstate.

We’ve already sent one big check to help in the recovery, and we are actively collecting money to grow the Disaster Relief Fund so we can do even more.

Solidarity is central to what it means to be in a union. We care for each other. We care for our members, the students and patients we serve. And, we care for the communities in which we live and work.

In these fractured times, unions are embracing the message that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Unions are about helping people embrace their common humanity, pursue the common good and help their neighbors – regardless of their differences.

We’re proud to do that … today and always.

Andy Pallotta, a former elementary teacher, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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