Flint, Mich. residents are in crisis, placed in a situation no one in this country should have to face. Their water is contaminated with lead, putting their health at risk. And Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is shirking his responsibility to find a long-term solution.
Recently, Gov. Snyder announced that replacing water pipes were not in the city’s short-term plans, calling it “a lot of work” to be done. Meanwhile, some 100,000 city residents—many of them low-income—are left to make do with temporary fixes that inadequately address the problem.
“Despite a community uniting together to demand a clean and safe water supply, government officials ignored and dismissed the concerns,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “However, it took less than six months for General Motors in Flint to be granted a change of water source after complaining that the river water was rusting its parts. What does that say about our government when car parts are put ahead of public safety?”
Teamsters from all over the country have pitched in to help the people of Flint. Local 135 in Indianapolis made a special delivery of more than 1,000 cases of water to Flint in late January. Local 728 in Atlanta also got into the act in early February, helping collect and transport some 15 pallets of bottled water. Local 773 in Allentown, Pa. hauled some 46,000 bottles of water to Flint in late February. And Local 25 in Boston donated a truck and driver to bring water collected in the region to Michigan at the same time.
Other local unions and Joint Councils have also gotten involved. Visit teamster.org for more information on what affiliates have helped out. Others elsewhere have gotten involved as well.
Such efforts, of course, will continue. But make no mistake, bottled water or even water filters are not a permanent solution to the problem.
Flint is suffering from failing infrastructure. While the city’s water is now being drawn from Lake Huron, the damage has been done. Old service pipes are now leaching lead, and that won’t stop even with a change in water sources. Upwards of 20,000 city homes have lead pipes, yet not a single one has been removed.
A National Issue
This is not just a Flint problem, however. Cities all across America have aging water infrastructure, including lead pipes. It is a ticking time bomb that must be addressed by policymakers at all levels of government.
That’s why the Teamsters last year rolled out its “Let’s Get America Working” platform that specifically addressed the need to invest in better water facilities.
A 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) only rated the nation’s drinking water a “D,” noting much of the country’s water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA).
AWWA notes the needs are greater than $1,000 per person in five regions: Far West, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Plains and Southwest. Capital spending has not kept pace with needs for water infrastructure.
The trend toward state and local governments’ assuming the bulk of the investment requirements in the coming decades will continue, with local governments’ paying an increasing share of the costs.
The ASCE document states, “America’s drinking water systems are aging and must be upgraded or expanded to meet increasing federal and state environmental requirements that add to the funding crisis.
Not meeting the investment needs of the next 20 years risks reversing the environmental, public health, and economic gains of the last three decades.”
Members of Local 135 in Indianapolis made a special delivery to help Indiana’s neighbors to the north. Recently, Local 135 Teamsters delivered more than 1,000 cases of bottled water to Flint.
Local 676 President Howard Wells and Dave Brisbin, a Local 676 shop steward, headed out on the road in March to deliver 100,000 bottles of water to the residents of Flint.
Local 676 in Collingswood, N.J., teamed up with the Whitman Park Youth Football Program to help provide fresh drinking water to the people of Flint. The kids in the football program heard the news about the water crisis in Flint and decided to help by collecting over 4,100 cases of water.
Crowley Trucking, a Teamster employer, provided the tractor trailer to transport the water.
Wells and Brisbin, who works at Crowley, drove the 643 miles to deliver the supplies to Michigan, where they were greeted by the people of Flint.
“We at Local 676 are honored to be a part of this community effort and thank everyone involved,” Wells said.
Stan Watson, Dekalb County Transportation and Labor Commissioner, and Dewey Mcclain, Georgia House Representative and Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council President, initially approached Atlanta’s Local 728 to assist in a collection drive to help Flint residents.
“It was truly a privilege to be able to serve our community in this capacity,” said Local 728 President Randy Brown. “Thank you to all my Teamster brothers and sisters who made this possible.”
Chuck Stiles, Local 728 Vice President and Assistant Director of the Teamsters’ Solid Waste, Recycling and Related Industries Division, said he received the call from Watson and immediately went to work with Local 728 business agents Mike Dollar and Vicky Beavers, calling YRC representatives to provide the trailer and recruiting members of Local 728 and the Georgia chapter of the Teamsters National Black Caucus (TNBC) to help supply and transport supplies.
“The outpouring of support has been inspiring. I’m proud of our union for taking the initiative to help their brothers and sisters in need. I want to thank Mike and Vicky for their help pulling this off. We couldn’t have done it without them,” Stiles said.
Teamsters in Georgia also teamed up with DeKalb County and the NFL Players Association to help Flint residents. DeKalb County residents donated 25,000 bottles of water from labor unions, homeowners associations, churches and other community members.
Once collected, the Teamsters Union shipped the water, at no charge, to Flint.
The Teamsters Union has a long history of helping out in times of crisis, and what is happening in Flint is certainly a crisis.
The Teamsters Union took the lead by coordinating a national response for Flint and locals and Joint Councils mobilized members to donate and help.
“The Teamsters Union is always there when our members need it. Unions are supposed to organize and negotiate contracts, but the Teamsters go over and beyond. They also help out members during natural disasters and even man-made ones like what’s happening in Flint,” said Nina Bugbee, President of Flint’s Local 332.
“The people of Flint are facing a catastrophe through no fault of their own. The Teamsters, here in Michigan and all across the country, are doing our part to lend a hand and make residents’ lives better any way we can,” said Greg Nowak, President of Michigan’s Joint Council 43.
Other unions are also stepping up. A union pension fund has said it will bring $25 million in low-cost loans to help replace lead-contaminated pipes in the city’s water system. The initiative hopes to remove and replace Flint’s residential lead pipes, starting with residences for at-risk groups, such as pregnant women, children 5 and younger, seniors, people with compromised immune systems and homes where testing shows high lead levels.
“The people of Flint have been waiting for action to remove lead tainted lines,” said Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. “This investment from union pension funds means that we can move forward to remove more lead lines and renew Flint’s infrastructure.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), representing Meijer employees, has arranged for discounted rates with Meijer for any organization that wants to make large water donations to Flint (Meijer is a regional big-box chain based in Michigan.
The Michigan Nurses Association has worked to educate the public about the impacts of lead poisoning, and helped pay for a bus so Flint residents could attend a hearing in Washington.
Hardworking union members are stepping into the gap left by politicians. While politicians scramble to assign blame instead of working to fix the problem, rank-and-file union members are making a real difference in the lives of those affected.
“To help communities like Flint move forward, politicians must stop treating unions and their members like the enemy,” Hoffa said. “Working people can be partners in helping with long-term solutions.”
Union plumbers have also stepped in to fill a dire need in Flint. More than 300 union plumbers assembled in Flint recently and visited more than 1,100 homes to help install new faucets and water filters free of charge. The plumbers, represented by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, were met by a grateful populace in Flint.
“They’re here to donate their time and skill that they’ve learned over the years and put it to good use today for people that are vulnerable,” said Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell of the union plumbers.
In a CNN column titled “Crumbling Infrastructure: Flint is Just the Latest Example,” Cornell William Brooks and Michael Brune wrote: Flint’s problems were also the result of the crumbling infrastructure that happens when we disinvest in our communities and our country.
Everyone watched in horror nearly 10 years ago when the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed into the river, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Politicians scrambled to come up with a plan for investing in infrastructure across the country—a plan that never materialized.
While the failing water infrastructure in Flint is less dramatic, it’s a slow drip that’s just as harmful. Ten years from now, let’s look back in regret at what we could have done, but didn’t, to prevent a future tragedy. This time, we need more than lip service. We need commitments—now—and action as soon as possible. Our leaders must establish a permanent fund to address crumbling water infrastructure across the country and specifically to replace lead water pipes in cities such as Flint.
While it can be politically expedient to campaign on budget cuts, in the case of U.S. infrastructure, it’s simply wrong. Over the long term, investing in infrastructure actually saves money. More important, it saves lives. And until our leaders act, no community will be safe.
The Teamsters Union’s “Let’s Get America Working” platform has been arguing these points well before the Flint water crisis.
Just because the problem is widespread doesn’t mean the Snyder administration should be let off the hook so easy. This is a tragedy that Michiganders have been aware of and the families of Flint have been dealing with since April 2014.
Decisions made by state officials over the last year-and-a-half have led to a community being forced to use water from the Flint River—a source that has been found to contain unacceptable levels of lead.
The parents of Flint’s 8,000 young children have real reason for worry. Even trace amounts of lead can have health effects that could last a lifetime. That includes lower IQ scores, developmental delays and behavioral issues such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is believed that all of them have been exposed.
Elected officials in Michigan and all over the country need to ask themselves what they would do if their own families faced such a health crisis. Certainly they would not be satisfied with a response that says changes might be made down the road.
Finding solutions is what good leaders do. Now is the time for Gov. Snyder to push forward with a forward-looking plan that improves the health, safety and well-being of Flint residents. Their needs can no longer be ignored.
Building Teamster Political Power
Union Mobilizes Members for 2016 Election
Corporate cronies for years have sought to do everything they can to push their platform to the public in hopes of getting more anti-worker policies passed at all levels of government. But a new report shows that effort might be succeeding.
Conservative groups, including those whose main objective is to smash workers and unions, are building a nationwide network to influence and indoctrinate voters, win elections and take over government.
The Fight For America’s Front Porch, released by Working America, paints a picture of the right-wing groups erecting state and local offices and recruiting tens of thousands of organizers to advance the corporatist agenda.
“In communities across the country, the radical right, spearheaded by the Koch brothers and Americans For Prosperity, is making a well-financed and highly organized power grab for the hearts and minds of working class voters,” the report, presented to the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in late February in San Diego, declares.
The agenda of the right wing includes takeovers of federal, state and local governments through extensive and permanent political organization down to the local precinct level and destruction of foes who oppose the corporate program. Its agenda includes everything from enacting so-called “right to work” laws to fighting school district taxes.
It’s because of such efforts that the Teamsters are debuting a new program for activists.
“Building Teamster Political Power” is meant to get members involved in making polices like the union’s “Let’s Get America Working” platform a reality. Locals will identify members who will be trained on how to talk about political issues and persuade their fellow Teamsters on the issues that matter most to this union.
For nearly a year, staff members from the Department of Political and Legislative Action have been meeting with Joint Council and local union officers and business agents to listen to ideas about how the Teamsters can improve on their already successful political program.
The feedback received pointed to a need to focus on working family issues, and have consistent communication with members who believe in our political objectives.
By starting early, the Teamsters can have scores of trained political activists on the ground to participate in the union’s 2016 election program. And workers will need every one of them to push back on the message of the corporate candidates who are seeking to reward their contributors.