Unions Mobilize to Help Haitian Earthquake Victims

Lindsay Beyerstein

A seriously injured boy waits for medical assistance outside the hospital in Port-au-Prince on January 14, 2010.

The first major influx of international aid to Haiti, which was devastated by an earthquake on Tuesday afternoon, began today. Organized labor is at the forefront of the relief efforts: unions are contributing the skilled labor of their members, organzational know-how, and fundraising. 

The situation is still too chaotic to compile an official death toll, but authorities are bracing for tens of thousands of casualties. An untold number of Haitians were trapped when buildings collapsed. (The mayor of capital city of Port-au-Prince estimated in 2008 that 60% of buildings in his city were structurally unsound and shoddily built.)

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is dispatching state of the art Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams. The rescuers will use high-tech scanning equipment and dogs to find survivors buried in the rubble. The first rescuers shipped out within 3 hours of the quake. A 72-member IAF team from Virginia reached the island last night. More teams are expected to follow.

IAFF’s relationship with Haitian firefighters predates the quake. Last June, 13 Haitian firefighters travelled to Montgomery County, MD, for two weeks of training. The program was organized by Local 1664 fire fighters Lee Silverman and Rick Steer who have been volunteering with Haitian fire fighters for a decade.

Haiti’s fragile healthcare infrastructure was badly damaged in the earthquake. The World Health Organization announced that eight hospitals in Port-Au-Prince were severely damaged.

Within hours of the quake, the National Nurses United, the nation’s largest union of registered nurses, issued an urgent appeal for volunteer RNs. More than 1,500 members answered the call within 24 hours. The volunteers will work with Haitian nurses.

Rose Ann De Moro, executive director of National Nurses United in Oakland, Calif., said she’d emailed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to ask for military protection for the volunteer nurses. The U.S. has already rushed over 5,000 soldiers and Marines to Haiti to assist with relief efforts. 

The Service Employees International Union, both as a home to a large Haitian population with family directly impacted and as the largest union of healthcare workers in North America, will support efforts to help Haiti recover,” said SEIU president Andy Stern in a statement released yesterday.

SEIU is working with federal agencies and relief organizations to respond to the crisis. SEIU Healthcare volunteers may deploy in the future.

Trade unionists in the neighboring Dominican Republic have informed the International Trades Union Confederation that they are planning to travel to Haiti to assist with relief operations.

So far, we’ve talked about what unions outside of Haiti are doing to help. For obvious reasons, we’ve heard little about how Haitian trade unionists are grappling with the disaster. If you know more, please leave a comment below.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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