This blog is by Sandra Boone, Communications Associate for the BlueGreen Alliance.
Sue Browne, Regional Program Manager for the BlueGreen Alliance in Michigan and Wisconsin, recently interviewed a number of Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) members about the state of America’s infrastructure and the work they did following Superstorm Sandy. We’ve compiled some of their answers below and they’re included in our new YouTube video, “UWUA Repairs America After Sandy.” You can visit YouTube to see the video or watch it below.
Getting Life Back to Normal
Being first responders is part of the job description for UWUA members. They are the individuals who respond when power or utility service is lost due to explosions, fire, storms and a variety of other disasters scenarios.
According to James Slevin, Vice President of UWUA Local 1-2, “The Utility Workers of America are the first responders in a number of storms and emergencies. We’re the ones that put back the power, the gas, the water and the steam to help get life back to normal. That’s important to recognize, that we’re first responders, and we’re out there on the street.”
The need for UWUA members was made clear in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy when 8.5 million homes and businesses throughout a 21-state region lost electrical service.
Slevin says his members went to work even before the storm ended. “During [Superstorm] Sandy, some of our workers were in substations that blew up. They were flooded in powerhouses where tides came over ocean walls. They were there, trying to make those places safe, and doing the best they could—as workers—to make sure the people of Westchester County and New York City had lights, heat and power. They were there for them.”
They did that work even though many live in areas like Rockaway and Howard Beach where flooding and fires caused devastation. “A lot of them left their homes—even though they had damage—and came in to work 12-hour shifts, as their families were losing their homes. Many didn’t know what to do, but they did what they do best: respond to the people in New York City and Westchester County.”
In addition to the Locals in the area, more than 57,000 utility workers from 30 states and Canada traveled to the East Coast to help restore power after Superstorm Sandy. These included people like Brian Murray, a member of UWUA Local 18007 in Chicago. Murray calls the work he did out east “an experience of a lifetime,” and he credits the safety training and experience UWUA members have for helping him and others stay safe there.
“A lot of things out east following Hurricane Sandy was extreme unsafe. Broken glass, vehicles all over the streets, broken mains, broken meters,” Murray said. “Being a first responder and a union member, thank god all of the experience we have together and thank god for all of working together out there in New York.
Keith Melville, a 31-year Substation Electrician and the Secretary-Treasurer of UWUA Local 102-G in Pennsylvania, also helped restore power after Superstorm Sandy. “We saw lot of power lines down, a lot of trees down and a lot of unattended lines down. We needed to sit on lines so people don’t get near them. “
Responding after storms and other extreme weather events is something that is becoming increasingly common for UWUA members due climate change and the state of America’s aging infrastructure. This is a problem seen across the country. Melville said, “The equipment we have is old and worn out. It needs to be fixed, because now, whenever the weather gets bad, it stresses the equipment and it has more of a tendency to fail.”
Joshua McTaggart, a Journeymen Line worker who is part of UWUA Local 145 in Cadillac, Michigan, adds, “We have aging poles. We have poles that we are replacing that have been standing since 1930. We have broken cross arms and conductors that are barely hanging onto the cross arms. I’ve seen poles that fall over in farm fields. We have an aging infrastructure out there.”
That work, however, is becoming more difficult because of utilities are making cutbacks in staffing and maintenance. According to Slevin, “The average worker is no longer going home after eight hours. They are there 15, 16-hour days, five or six days a week. There’s more demand for that.”
Tim Toll, Union Safety Representative for UWUA Local 106 in Battle Creek, Michigan, says UWUA members are aware of these problems and they want to fix it. “Our union brothers are very concerned about [keeping our infrastructure strong],” he said. “Instead of just going out and changing a cross arm, they want to replace the pole and the transformer and the switching, doing it all in one deal. Our union brothers just want to change it and make it right.”
Slevin says utilities are going to have to make serious investments in order to repair and upgrade our infrastructure systems so that they are prepared for climate change, but that these investments will pay off. “We need upgrades. We can no longer keep having a shoestring system or an ‘I’ll repair it when it breaks’ system. We need to invest in a system that is reliable and safe—safe for the public and safe for the workers that are out on the street. If we make that investment, we’re going to have a better area to work in and a better environment for all of us.”
That investment would create according to Murray. “When communities make infrastructure investments, it means jobs for people in the area. They are union jobs and good jobs with health benefits.”
It’s time we take real action and make a serious investment in our infrastructure systems so we can Repair America and prepare the vital networks for climate change.
Work with the Utility Workers Union of America and the BlueGreen Alliance to support the 2013 National Infrastructure Development Bank, which will facilitate that much-needed investment. Tell your elected officials you agree by becoming a Constituent Co-Sponsor of the legislation.