Union members laboring for disaster victims

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

This week is Labor Day week. Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, and before that had been unofficially celebrated for years in support of the role labor unions play in achieving advances in the working lives of Americans, including weekends, overtime, paid holidays, and health and retirement benefits. It has traditionally been a time of parades, community events and family-centered celebrations.

But this Labor Day was different for many Americans. Those in Texas directly displaced and otherwise affected by the brutal force and ongoing impact of Hurricane Harvey have spent not a moment thinking about parades, or barbecues, or a day off from work. Instead, they faced more immediate challenges: where to find shelter for the night, where to find their next meal, whether family members were safe and accounted for.

Into this historic challenge stepped thousands of federal, state and local workers — most of them union members — drawn not by obligation, but rather by nothing more than a simple desire to help those who needed help. They came from health and human services agencies, law enforcement, emergency management organizations and more.

Of course, it wasn’t just public employees who stepped up. It was tens of thousands of privatesector workers locally and nationally — carpenters, plumbers, electricians, pipe fitters and construction workers — drawn by a simple desire to help those who needed help.

They came from across America — needed to fill the gaps where failure to invest in public infrastructure and services caused destruction and left people stranded. People like Dan Davis, a senior fire apparatus technician for the Orange County Fire Authority and an Orange County Employees Association member, whose team on the Orange County Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 5 performed more than a thousand rescues in Texas.

Hurricane Harvey (and now Hurricane Irma) provides real-life lessons for those who justify cuts to public infrastructure and services by claiming that government must run “like a business.” Government’s function is not to turn a profit or measure success based on a balance sheet. Rather, its value is in the lives saved in the face of a hurricane — the loss of life prevented by smart investments in community infrastructure and services that keep communities above water when hurricanes and other acts of God strike.

It also provides a lesson about the heart and values of Americans.

This natural obligation to help our neighbors is ingrained in our hearts and souls, and is part and parcel of being American. And one of the main reasons it has become ingrained is because of unions. Unions have taught us to stand together, shoulder to shoulder. They have taught us to have each other’s backs, and to look out for our neighbors, to help others in times of need, and to share and share alike. Unions have helped us make those characteristics a part of our national fabric, and have helped incorporate them into our social order.

It has been unions who have fought against racial, gender and class injustice. It has been unions who have fought for the dignity of each working man and woman, and the value of doing a good day’s work. It is unions who have consistently pushed back against the exploitation of those who are vulnerable, and unions who, brick by brick, have built the American middle class. And it has been unions who have ingrained in us as Americans a deep concern for each other and a willingness to sacrifice our time, our comforts and ourselves for each other in times of need.

Those values that brought thousands into the streets of Texas are needed more than ever before, as man-made disasters have been wreaking havoc on our democracy even more frequently than divine incidents such as wind and rain. Just this week, thousands of young undocumented “Dreamers” were also displaced — this time it is politicians, not wind, tearing apart our communities.

This Labor Day — and this moment in our nation’s history — presents us with a unique opportunity to summon our better selves and to push back against those forces who seek to dehumanize our neighbors. It reminds us to rush in to help, the way so many are doing in Texas.

Standing together: It’s what we do when disaster strikes. It’s what we have done throughout history to fight injustice. And it’s what we need to do today.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: September 8, 2017