The people suffering in Puerto Rico are facing horrific conditions after Hurricane Maria hit the island a month ago. What we have heard from reports is that Puerto Rico is devastated. Electricity comes and goes, hospital generators lack fuel necessary to operate, food and water is scarce and roads are impassable. Residents are so desperate for necessities they are drinking water from contaminated sites. Outbreaks of deadly bacterial diseases have been reported, but medical supplies are running low. The situation is dire and it could take weeks or even months to restore power to the island.
Despite the anemic response on behalf of the federal government, UAW members stepped up to help because even though we are not connected by land, the 3.5 million people in Puerto Rico — 10,000 of them being UAW members — are our brothers and sisters and fellow Americans, and, more importantly, they are human beings. We are accustomed to solidarity at the workplace, but solidarity spans beyond that. The strength of the UAW is built upon service to its members and to the community. This is a core value and it is enshrined in the UAW Constitution.
How could it be otherwise? The idea of joining together with others to make the world a better place is the bedrock on which we were founded. The UAW has been dedicated to the proposition that we can make progress only as the community makes progress and that we cannot make progress at the expense of the community. This is why UAW members and members of more than 20 unions dropped what they were doing, left their own families and flew to San Juan to help Puerto Ricans recover and rebuild. UAW members from Flint were some of the first to jump at the chance to volunteer because they know firsthand what it’s like to need help after the man-made water crisis devastated their city.
The UAW members who went to Puerto Rico recognize that working women and men have common interests, regardless of where we live or what language we speak. At a time when the needs of the people in Puerto Rico are so great, some politicians in Washington pretend Puerto Rico is a foreign country and not a U.S. territory, and seem more concerned about giving tax breaks to the rich and gutting health care. Even anti-union groups saw a chance to take another swing at union members by publishing false reports that the Teamsters went on strike in Puerto Rico and refused to deliver supplies. The real story is the hurricane caused so much damage that entire road systems were destroyed.
The world would be a better place if the policies of our government reflected the sensibility and selflessness of all those in the labor movement, who rise to the occasion to help people in times of need. We, as a country, cannot be a symbol of hope to others unless we shape our policies in the image of positive values rather than in the image of our fears and our hatreds.
Dennis Williams is president of the UAW.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.