Laborers in Harvey Flood Zone Get Helping Hand From Unions

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By Jaclyn Diaz and Elliott T. Dube

Lots of workers will be needed to rebuild and repair parts of the Gulf Coast region devastated by Hurricane Harvey. But the current priority for unions is the safety of their members in the area.

More than 1,300 union members covered by the Central South Carpenters Regional Council live in the Texas counties and Louisiana parishes that have been declared disaster areas. Staff members for the regional council, based in Metairie, La., have been personally calling to check on each member’s status, the regional council’s executive secretary-treasurer, Jason Engels, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 29.

About 70,000 affiliate members of the Texas AFL-CIO are estimated to live and work in areas directly affected by Harvey, Ed Sills, communications director for the labor organization, told Bloomberg BNA. About 108,100 union members and 143,200 other workers are covered by union contracts in the Houston metropolitan area, according to data from Bloomberg BNA’s 2017 Union Membership & Earnings Data Book.

“This has been like three disasters at once,” Sills said of Harvey’s damage. “We’re still trying to get our heads around what we can do.”

The Texas AFL-CIO has been in contact with representatives of labor councils in the impact areas, such as the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, based in Houston, to see how members are faring, he said. Reports are still coming in as the storm continues.

Relief Donations Sought

The Carpenters regional council is soliciting relief fund donations for its members, especially those in Houston’s Local 551, the regional council’s largest. Members can apply for funds to repair their own homes, Engels said.

Meanwhile, the state AFL-CIO has established a Texas Workers Relief Fund to assist members and their families in need. “It’s an expression of solidarity,” Sills said.

The AFL-CIO opened the fund to the public when wildfires devastated Bastrop County, Texas, in September and October 2011. The money from the fund then went toward replacing lost tools for workers in the area and providing members with gift cards for buying necessities, Sills said.

The labor federation’s response will be different this time because of the large area affected by the hurricane.

In the case of the Bastrop fires, Texas AFL-CIO representatives traveled to the area to provide services to members. But the catastrophic flooding caused by Harvey is still blocking roads, so the group will have to rely on representatives from inside the impact zones to bring aid directly to members.

Houston, Galveston, and other Gulf Coast areas hit hard by the hurricane and the subsequent tropical storm are big areas for labor unions, Sills said. The Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, which covers workers in Houston and Galveston, will have to do serious assessment of “no doubt, some horrendous conditions,” he said.

Collaboration Is Key

The Carpenters are working with the Southern States Millwright Regional Council, as they did following the August 2016 flooding of many parts of southern Louisiana, Engels said. “Unfortunately, it’s something we’re getting pretty good at as far as response efforts,” he said.

Engels said he has talked with several contractors about bringing in supplies ranging from drywall to protective masks for working in unsanitary conditions. “We want to be prepared with those small things with our employers to make sure that their employees'—our members'—homes are fixed,” he said.

The next phase for construction workers in the area, “when people can get back in and assess the damage once the waters go down, will be the gutting of their homes and rebuilding so they can get back to work,” Engels said.

At that point, bringing in workers from outside the area will “absolutely” be required to tackle the major rebuilding challenges to come, he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bna.com; Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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