09/06/2017

Texas labor pulls together in Harvey's wake

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As the Labor Day weekend drew to a close, union members in and around Houston joined AFT members to begin cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey. Many Texans are still out of their homes, Houston public schools are closed until Sept. 11, and some folks are either just discovering the damage or starting to clear the debris.

The hurricane brought out remarkable efforts from fellow members and more proof of what it means to be part of a union family.

Members and fellow unionists from across the region are volunteering in assistance and cleanup. The Texas AFL-CIO helped coordinate relief efforts, including a day of service Sept. 2 in Houston. The Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation sent caravans of volunteers to Houston to help clean out houses, assist shelter evacuees at NRG Stadium, and track down union members who were flooded out and in need of help.

Members cleaning up in Texas

The Houston Federation of Teachers and Houston Educational Support Personnel provided members with hot meals and cleaning supplies and pitched in to help clean members' homes, according to HESP President Wretha Rawls-Thomas, who herself had to be evacuated by boat from her home at the height of the flood, and then joined in the relief effort.

Thousands of AFT members from across the country are continuing to donate to the AFT Disaster Relief Fund, which has raised more than $90,000 to date. Every penny is going into direct grants of money, grocery cards and supplies for impacted members. If you are an affected Texan still needing to apply for assistance, you can do so here. The deadline for Texas AFT applications is this Friday, Sept. 8. And check out the AFT's page of helpful resources.

"We are eternally grateful to so many educators and volunteers who are helping people who weren't as fortunate as us get back on their feet, to get their lives moving again," says HFT President Zeph Capo, who is an AFT vice president (pictured below with Wretha Rawls-Thomas). "Those donations coming through the AFT Disaster Relief Fund are going directly into our members' hands, to help them replace the clothes they lost, make sure that they have shoes on their feet, to get the things done that they need to do. We're helping every home that we can get back in order."

Zeph Capo and Wretha Rawls-Thomas

Local unions and AFT staff used emails, phone calls and texts to reach out to members who sent emergency pleas for help, including a new texting system called Hustle that relayed helpful information to about 12,000 members. To gain a sense of the need, watch this short video by HFT member Deana Reyes, whose home was flooded. Reyes notes that the situation will remain critical for a long time and thanks AFT members for their support.

Even before the hurricane, the AFT had realized the need to help members lacking school supplies, and now is launching a new program, together with First Book and the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, to supply school essentials nationwide. It became obvious with the storm that this effort needed to focus on the Texas coast. You can donate online. The AFT seeded the fund with $25,000 specifically going to Texas educators for supplies.

The AFT also is sending Texas locals 10,000 health and safety cleanup kits containing respirators, chemical-resistant gloves, hand sanitizer, flashlights and goggles.

Despite their good work, AFT members unfortunately must struggle with manmade disasters as well. Texas educators coping with the storm's aftermath also have to contend with the menace of federal and state immigration crackdowns that are terrorizing students. The Trump administration's ending of DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), along with SB 4, an anti-immigrant state law temporarily blocked by a judge, may drive entire families into hiding. Even as he commends union longshoremen, seafarers and steelworkers who are bringing the Port of Houston back into operation, Texas AFL-CIO Legislative Director Rene Lara echoes the words of a laborer who pointed out the obvious: "If they deport all of us, who will rebuild?"

This destruction "lays bare the thin safety net that holds up Texas families from having one stroke of bad luck put them in the poorhouse or out on the street," Texas AFT President and AFT Vice President Louis Malfaro says, calling on union members to recommit themselves to building strong, powerful unions. "In times like these, I'm proud to be a Texas AFT member and part of our union family."

Malfaro says it's heartening to read emails from fellow members across America offering thoughts and prayers as well as monetary donations, including one from an AFT affiliate in Seattle that donated $1,000. Members from eight other states contacted Texas AFT asking if they could adopt a classroom or send supplies.

Meanwhile, members and friends of Corpus Christi AFT came together to equip students displaced by Harvey, some housed in local shelters, with backpacks of school supplies. Districts most affected by Harvey instructed families to enroll their students at nearby districts to start the school year. Thanks to member donations from the Disaster Relief Fund, those backpacks are going to incoming students at schools like George Evans Elementary, which started class Sept. 5.

Already short-staffed before the disaster, Corpus Christi educators are making room for these displaced kids from Houston and the town of Rockport, which stared into the eye of the storm. People think everyone evacuated, CCAFT President Nancy Vera told The Nation, "but honestly, the poverty-stricken children, who are children highly at risk, probably didn't evacuate. … So they are going to be traumatized."

Vera enumerated the many services students will need, and the many ways AFT members are responding. "We're going to try and help in every possible way, working with others in the community," she said. "We do it well because that's our business."

[Annette Licitra and affiliate reports]