Another Dispatch from Post-Sandy NYC

by George S.

November 8, 2012

We received this report from a public worker and Solidarity member in New York.

Last Saturday, I rode my bike from home all the way to the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, going along the Hudson River Park to get there. I was headed to Red Hook because they still didn’t have power at the time, and I planned to meet a friend who works with the Red Hook Initiative, a community center that has served as an impromptu relief provider since the storm (and featured on Democracy Now!). All along the Hudson River in Manhattan, it looked just like any another brisk fall day…kids playing baseball and soccer, joggers and bikers, the usual scene. The only difference was several crews of volunteers raking leaves and some small debris. Even further down, around financial district and City Hall, no effects could be seen other than several mobile generator trucks parked around the area, and some buildings pumping water out of their basements (including my union hall, unfortunately).

Volunteers distribute aid at the Red Hook Initiative after the storm.

Downtown Brooklyn seemed alive as usual, and it wasn’t until I got to Red Hook that I saw lines of people clustered around relief efforts. Most of the fallen trees and storm debris had apparently been cleaned up, so most relief efforts were focused on distributing food, water, and flashlights. Power was still out, running water was off, and stores were closed all around. A bunch of us were helping to carry these supplies up the dark staircases of the public housing complexes to home-bound folks (many of the buildings are six stories and taller, a few as high as 14).

Oddly absent from these efforts to distribute basic supplies was the city government, which seemed focused on getting mass transit running again. After the amount of salt water that overwhelmed the tunnels–which are all controlled electronically–it’s hard to imagine how much work it has taken to re-open our transit system, but it was clearly an immense effort. It seems that this was the clear priority–get the power back on at the Stock Exchange, and get New Yorkers back to their jobs! But while Wall Street had power on Wednesday, nearby public housing would wait until Friday for electricity. When it came to the city’s recovery efforts, getting capital flowing seems to have been prioritized over providing basic relief to thousands of people whose lives depend on functioning elevators, for example. Providing this relief seems to have been left to communities themselves to organize, no thanks to Mayor Bloomberg. Thankfully, as the Red Hook Initiative and other organizations like CAAAV in Chinatown have shown, some of these areas had community institutions capable of coordinating the donations and volunteer labor needed for initial relief.

Locals gather to receive aid from CAAAV, home of the Chinatown Tenants Union and other efforts.

But let me rewind for a minute: what was the mayor’s priority for the city’s own workers during the actual storm itself? While Bloomberg was telling all residents who hadn’t already evacuated to stay home except emergencies, he demanded that all city workers should report to work, claiming “the city is open for business!” Certainly some workers do count as “essential” in a crisis like this, but it’s also certain that not all city workers fall into that category. What are tax assessors going to do? How about dental assistants whose clinics were closed? Welfare offices were closed…so what did you need their workers there for?

It seems to me that the mayor’s purpose was to create a situation where the city got some work out of the people who could walk to work, and would minimize having to pay the rest of the workforce during the storm. With so many public services closed, there wasn’t much for many workers to do even if they could get to work, and many just sat in their offices biding time. If your office or agency was closed, you were officially required to go to work in the shelters and other relief efforts–but with no preparation or planning as to what exactly you were to do, how effective could this have really been? Was this really worth the risks that some of these workers went through trying to get there on Monday and Tuesday mornings, like older workers falling over in strong winds and debris-strewn sidewalks? Of course, many workers simply couldn’t get to work, despite their efforts. It seems that as much as the mayor may have wanted workers to come in, he also knew that many wouldn’t be able to make it, enabling the city to save on paying public workers. Unfortunately, there’s a recent precedent that supports my guess on the city’s motives.

In December 2010, there was a big snow storm that hit the region, then called the “snowpocolypse” or “snowmagedden.” The paralyzing effect it had on the city was largely due to the mayor’s efforts to save money several months prior to the storm by laying off the sanitation workers who plow the streets. In the end, the city might have spent more on overtime for the remaining sanitation workers than it would have spent on regular pay for the full force. In addition to the sanitation workers, all other city workers were told they had to report to work, despite very few plowed streets, no buses, and few trains. Many workers who couldn’t make it to work were simply cut out of a day’s pay. The “nice” managers just counted the missed time as “vacation” time.

The unions filed mass grievances that eventually succeeded in winning back full pay–without it being counted against earned vacation time–to workers who documented that they made an effort to come to work. But there were many workers who either didn’t have that documentation (like an e-mail to a supervisor describing their efforts) or just didn’t get around to completing the required forms, and they lost vacation days, or pay if they ran out of vacation time. So, despite knowing that in the end the City would probably have to pay many of these workers for the missed days, my guess is that the mayor was trying to set up a situation where workers received a “report to work” directive and only some will get around to effectively appealing it–and the city gets to claw back some vacation time away from the rest.

As we get a little further away from the storm itself, and more focus is on the relief and rebuilding, I’ve been wondering how this is going to compare to Katrina’s impact on New Orleans. In NYC, we have astronomical unemployment among certain segments of the population, particularly criminalized and legally marginalized Black and Latino working class and poor. Will the rebuilding efforts employ them? If so, at what wages and under what conditions?

This past year, the City Council enacted a law requiring companies that receive public subsidies to pay a “living wage” (a meager $10 an hour plus benefits, or $11.50 without benefits). Will this apply to companies contracted to do relief work and if so, will it actually help the workers? Though initiated by some good folks, this bill was ultimately eviscerated by our Democratic City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, so my hopes for significant help here is in short supply.

And what about temporary workers employed in the recovery effort? I saw an e-mail going around recently advertising openings with Consolidated Edison (or Con Ed, the city’s electricity provider), but it appears to come from a temp agency. Though higher than minimum wage, it is likely much lower than the pay for permanent Con Ed workers, who recently defeated a company lock-out aimed at destroying their pension and increasing employee health care contributions.

Putting all this together, I start to see a few themes emerge around the city’s priorities during this emergency and since:

  1. Try to avoid paying city workers and tell them to go outside in the middle of a hurricane if they want to keep their vacation.
  2. Focus on getting capital flowing–don’t worry about things like elevators for seniors in high-rise public housing
  3. Despite high unemployment, make sure that rebuilding jobs don’t actually help any workers gain stability

Occupy Sandy volunteers facilitate “mutual aid” to storm survivors.

I guess we’re just seeing another round of what Naomi Klein has popularly called “disaster capitalism,” the opportunistic use of disaster for capitalist gain. With all this neglect for people and our needs in the midst of an emergency, we can see the need for community-grown efforts such as those discussed above. As I read the reactions of other activists affected by the storm and engaged in relief work, I appreciate that some have begun acknowledging the political tensions around Occupy folks handling lot of the relief work. I think that if people are able to help, it’s a good effort in the same way that many of our reform efforts are, but there are potential pitfalls becoming clearer and clearer by the day. For example, I noticed the other day that one of the more “progressive” foundations has already set up grants for this relief work. Obviously, this is to be expected–and given the pathetic lack of effectiveness from the city and FEMA, this help is sorely needed–but it creates a situation where activists are getting deeper and deeper into the role of trying to provide all of this relief ourselves.

I believe that we need to be able to differentiate between the distribution of aid and political struggle to make this aid a social priority–a priority for the government that supposedly represents and serves us! These two things, community-based/private aid and government aid, not mutually exclusive but I think they are different. As we saw in New Orleans after Katrina, distributing aid doesn’t automatically turn into political struggle…it still takes organization, analysis, and strategy [for example, see some of the early documents produced by the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund after Hurricane Katrina]. And, of course, it still takes rebuilding the left itself, with all of us who share a commitment to providing for people’s needs over those of capital–including even the crazy notion that it’s reasonable to stay inside during a hurricane and still take a vacation next year.