The SIU and numerous allies have stepped up in a big way to help people in Puerto Rico who are recovering from a series of earthquakes that struck the territory beginning late last year. The union has facilitated collection, transportation and delivery of donated relief items as small as handheld flashlights and as large as tents big enough to serve as full-sized classrooms. More than $50,000 worth of supplies had been donated as of early February.
Rank-and-file SIU members have helped collect and load items at hiring halls in Philadelphia, Houston, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Members in Puerto Rico not only have helped unload relief supplies at the hall in San Juan, they’ve also voluntarily distributed water, food and other items throughout the territory.
But the union definitely isn’t alone.
“This is a team effort and the SIU is proud to be part of it,” stated Seafarers President Michael Sacco. “We are in this for the long haul, and we’re committed to helping our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico.”
Working together on the relief operation are the SIU; the Maritime Trades Department and its port councils; the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR, part of the AFT); the AMO; the ILA; the Teamsters; Crowley Maritime; TOTE Maritime; SEACOR Holdings; National Shipping of America; and the Bakery Workers. (Others may have joined the informal coalition since press time.)
While the tents by far are the biggest-sized items, the donations have included numerous additional components. The list includes cases of bottled water, cots, folding chairs, camp stoves, tarps, sleeping bags, thermal cups, mosquito nets, gas lanterns, food, hygiene products, propane canisters, diapers, insect repellent, flashlights, water filters, solar-powered lights, medicines, batteries, generators, coolers, battery-powered fans and more. All of the items have been shipped (pro bono) on Jones Act vessels.
SIU Port Agent Amancio Crespo, based in Puerto Rico, has worked with several local labor organizations to distribute goods wherever needed, but especially to the southeastern corner of the island. He said Seafarers and other trade unionists are loading their own pickup trucks with supplies to take them to areas where damaged roads and infrastructure cannot handle larger trucks hauling containers. Among the first places where union-donated supplies arrived were 10 tent communities near main highways around Ponce, Puerto Rico.
“The only questions union members ask is ‘Where can I take help?’” Crespo stated. “Members hear supplies have arrived and they know we have to get them out…. I do not have words to express our deepest gratitude, but rest assured that your donations and actions do make a big difference, and are being distributed to those in need.”
Many of the commercial tents and sidewalls have been manufactured by American Tent, based in Milwaukee. Those tents will serve as temporary classrooms for students and educators in some of the hardest hit areas in the island’s south where thousands of homes, schools and commercial buildings were destroyed and damaged. A majority of the 856 schools on the island remain closed due to concerns over structural damage and asbestos, and up to a fifth are considered structurally unsound.
On January 21, AFT President Randi Weingarten travelled to Guánica to witness the devastation firsthand.
“Puerto Rico is confronting a crisis and it is our moral duty to come together to help our fellow American citizens,” Weingarten said. “The generosity of thousands of donors has enabled us to work hand-in-hand to find ways to help communities get back on their feet. The true measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable, and only by coming together can we begin to repair the damage and build resilience. The earthquakes wreaked havoc, but they couldn’t shake the courage and the spirit of the people of Puerto Rico.”
“Crowley is proud and honored to collaborate with our longtime labor partners and fellow shipping companies to deliver these much-needed supplies to our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico,” said Crowley Vice President of Labor Relations Ira Douglas. “As the longest-serving U.S. shipper for Puerto Rico, Crowley alongside our allies stepped up to help those in need on the island. By pooling our resources and working together, we can help Puerto Rico recover.” AFSCME issued a statement that read in part: “The thousands of members Servidores Publicos Unidos de Puerto Rico (SPUPR), AFSCME Council 95 have been working tirelessly to rebuild and heal Puerto Rico’s communities amid unthinkable disaster. They, too, face displacement from their homes, vast power outages and the threat of disease. For their commitment to Puerto Rico at this trying time, they deserve respect and support. We are proud to join this partnership with other committed unions and businesses to continue mobilizing and expanding the amount of resources that we can offer to help the people of Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Ricans are still recovering from 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria; many roofs still have telltale blue tarps as reconstruction has repeatedly stalled. The AFT and AMPR launched Operation Agua (the SIU also joined the effort), which raised more than $2 million and distributed more than 100,000 water filters.
AMPR president Elba Aponte Santos said, “This has been a devastating three years for all Puerto Ricans and the experience has drained the social and emotional wellbeing of students and educators. It is incumbent on unions and business to join together to help. We will not rest until communities have recovered and secured the supplies they so desperately need.”