UAW members spring into action to help neglected city
When you turn on the tap at home, you don’t think about whether the water is safe. You trust it’s OK because trained government experts make sure it’s safe for drinking, cooking and bathing.
That trust has been broken in a big way for residents of Flint, Michigan, almost half of whom live below the federal poverty line. Daily life is already hard for the majority African-American residents. Now, their lives have been devastated with health and financial damages, thanks to a city water system poisoned with high levels of lead, which can cause irreversible brain and neurological damage, among other lifelong health problems especially for young children. Lead poisoning does not discriminate. What has happened in this city affects everyone who lives there and expects that their city services are delivering clean water to bathe in, cook with and drink.
Early on, residents complained that something wasn’t right after officials switched Flint’s water from the Detroit, Michigan, system to the one in Flint. Despite widespread complaints about the water’s bad taste, smell and discoloration, there was no immediate, effective action taken by the entity charged with running Flint government: the governor’s office.
However, UAW members didn’t think twice about what to do. In 2014, throughout Region 1D and beyond, the UAW at all levels sprang into action with massive deliveries of bottled water to the city’s emergency water distribution centers. They’ve been collecting and delivering bottled water ever since and looking for more ways to help.
“When we started to hear about the water problems in September 2014, we began working on getting bottled water to residents,” said UAW Region 1D Director Gerald Kariem. Flint is important to the UAW, particularly Region 1D, where it is located. It’s where the UAW has the distinguished history as home of the 1936-37 Flint Sit-Down Strike where the UAW first gained hard-won recognition from General Motors. Many UAW members and retirees live or grew up there, work at GM, or have family members living in the city. The city is home to
seven UAW locals. “It’s a shame we had to do this. This is Flint, Michigan, not a Third World country. We are in Michigan, the land of lakes with good, fresh water,” said Kariem. “The response of UAW members, from officers to the rank- and-file, makes you proud to be a UAW member. I’m not surprised our members rose to the occasion.” The city’s poisoned water system has attracted statewide, national and even international media attention. Much of the focus has been on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, whose administration is in charge of the city under a controversial emergency management system that removes local control and voting rights from Flint residents and locally elected officials are mandated with getting the city’s budget in shape. That means ensuring the city’s basic services meet the needs of residents often takes a back seat. The bottom line drives decisions under an EM system, not how residents might be hurt by its cost-saving measures. Flint was no exception. In fact, this “business approach” to governing, with a focus on the bottom line, is what propelled Governor Snyder to office, twice.
When the Snyder-appointed EM OK’d switching the city’s water from the high-quality Detroit system, which relies on the fresh water of the Great Lakes, to using the polluted Flint River, it was also decided not to pay extra for a water treatment that prevents lead corrosion in Flint’s old pipes. Lead leaching from old pipes is a commonly known problem, and it’s preventable during the treatment process. That step wasn’t taken by those running the city of Flint, while residents, especially children, paid the high price with their health in ways so sweeping they haven’t been adequately measured yet, and may never be because of the magnitude of the damage.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no level of lead exposure for children is safe. They recommend medical attention for anyone with blood levels above 5 mcg/dL (micrograms of lead per deciliter). Blood and water system testing for lead has been ongoing for many of the city’s roughly 100,000 residents. One Flint resident was reported to have more than five times the 5 mcg/dL lead level in his blood. The federal lead limit for safe drinking water is 15 ppb (parts per billion). The EPA conducted water tests that showed a reading as high as 4,000 ppb of lead for water service at the property tested.
Flint residents have reported severe rashes, gastrointestinal issues and other health concerns since the water problem started. Adults with lead poisoning are at high risk for high blood pressure, fatigue, joint pain, decline in mental functioning, muscle pain and, for pregnant women, possible miscarriage. Lead damage to children also appears in a variety of ways in addition to severe rashes, such as irritability, weight loss, fatigue, hearing loss, abdominal pain and other intestinal problems. Children with high levels of lead also face problems years from now, including neurological damage, developmental delays and learning difficulties. Lead even affects pets, causing rashes and other problems, like fatigue and erratic behavior.
Democracy may have failed Flint, but UAW members in the city that helped give birth to our union did not.
Congressional hearings and a federal investigation are underway to get to the bottom of the water poisoning scandal. In the meantime, Flint residents need access to clean water and new water pipes that won’t leach lead. New pipes for every house affected don’t appear to be coming any time soon. What has been coming, however, is continued action from UAW members to volunteer to help in any way they can, including getting bottled water and financial contributions from UAW members to the beleaguered residents of Flint, which is the county seat for Genesee County. In all, about 415,000 people live in the greater Flint area.
“UAW members know that our union has always been about community and giving a helping hand to those who need it,” said UAW President Dennis Williams. “The quick response of UAW members from all over to the Flint water crisis shows that solidarity is something our members take seriously, both as part of being a union member and as members of the communities where they live and work. Flint residents needed emergency help. UAW members stepped up without question, collecting bottled water, distributing it in their own vehicles, collecting financial donations for Flint residents, going door-to-door to help. Whatever the need is, UAW members are there,” said Williams.
Kariem said Region 1D immediately “adopted” the city’s three community centers— Brennan Community Center, Hasselbring Community Center and Berston Field House — and coordinated regular water collection and distribution to the centers. The centers weren’t on the city’s water distribution list and, for some seniors, were the only source of bottled water they could easily access. Early in the crisis, Region 1D’s Community Health Coordinator Scott Kincaid also played an integral role in assisting Flint residents. He’s a member of the Greater Flint Health Coalition, formed by the UAW and community groups, and was a Flint City Council member for 30 years. He’s been advocating on several fronts, including legal, on behalf of Flint residents hurt by the poisoned water. “The response of UAW members has been great,” said Kincaid.
“With all the volunteers, we’ve delivered over a half million dollars in water distribution so far, and we’ve heard
from UAW members across the country with water and financial contributions. It’s been an outstanding collective effort from UAW members in response to this crisis,” he said.
Deborah Holmes, executive director of the Brennan Center which serves roughly 125 senior citizens in Flint, said the UAW’s water donations have been invaluable to her vulnerable, elderly clients. “When UAW members deliver water to us, they allow us to give more water to seniors than they are passing out at area fire departments and distribution centers, and they don’t have to stand in line,” said Holmes. “Region 1D even brought us some water filters. One of our seniors who is 81 years old didn’t have a filter at home, but she wouldn’t ask for a filter. Because of the UAW donation, I was able to get a filter to her house. She was silently using the toxic Flint water all this time. Sometimes the UAW’s help makes us so happy, I want to break down in tears,” said Holmes.
Many UAW members from throughout Michigan and the country have been helping collect water and financial contributions, and distribute water and filters to Flint residents.
Director Kariem said UAW member’s commitment to helping communities in need hit home with him on a recent snowy Sunday. “I was just getting out of church and I got an email that water pickup was starting. It was snowing, and when I got to Region 1D’s offices I saw all the UAW members coming with their trucks, and I cried. I thought of a friend of mine showing me the rashes on his arms. He lives in Flint and he talks about bathing and all the challenges he faces installing filters, how the water is damaging him still,” said Kariem. “I vacillate between being grateful and being angry. This is not what democracy is supposed to look like. This current governor’s administration and the EM were very hasty to turn to Flint water without using anti-corrosion protections. They were more concerned about their political will, and it overrode the people’s will to do the right thing for people. Democracy failed Flint when the EM came in, and it failed them again when an EM minimized the ethics of not putting proper safeguards in place. Careless, reckless,” said Kariem.
Region 1D Assistant Director Steve Dawes said the region is focused on helping Flint get through the crisis, but it’s more difficult because this crisis is unique. Unlike natural disasters that leave publicly visible signs of destruction, a lead poisoned water system is invisible when you look around the city. It’s underground in the water, and in people’s bodies. UAW member Reggie Smith grew up in Flint, and his mother and other family members still live there. He’s president of UAW Local 659 in Flint, with about 2,800 active members and 12,000 retirees from seven units, including the GM Flint Metal Center, GM Flint Engine South, GM CCA (GM Customer Care and Aftersales) in Swartz Creek, ACC Truck Fleet (Automotive Component Carrier), Android Industries, Logistics Service Industries, and Flint Tool & Die Plant 38. The water crisis has hit home with his members and with him personally. “I’m a Flintstone,” said Smith about his deep roots in the city. “I worry about my mom who is 80 years old. She still has to shower in that water. She has to bring in gallons of water just to cook and brush her teeth. And on top of that, she still has to pay her water bill. My family is going through this,” he said.
He and his Local 659 members have been helping the city from the start of the crisis. Smith said he reminded his members to be ready to do whatever is needed, whenever it’s needed because that’s the UAW way, helping communities. “We let certain groups use our hall for water meetings, and every Tuesday our local and Local 599 partner at the food bank and deliver water to the three senior centers,” said Smith. “Members use their personal trucks and get that water to them until they have what they need. On Fridays, Locals 598 and 651 do the same thing. We are ready to volunteer at a moment’s notice,” he said. He urged members to also do direct action by participating in rallies and demonstrations.
“We rallied at the state capitol during Snyder’s state of the state address in the cold. I told members to be prepared to do this at any time,” said Smith. He says the water crisis happened “because it was a minority town that’s poor. They thought they could overlook it and not listen to the working people here. If it was anywhere else they would have double checked before making decisions. They say they’ll reimburse residents for all the money spent on bottled water, but you can’t undo the health damage to residents, especially children. All over saving a couple dollars,” said Smith. Still, he knows Flint residents will eventually recover because it’s a tough city that’s been through a lot. “This is a resilient city that has suffered through plant closings, chronic high unemployment, crime rates unheard of, you name it. And I’ve had my personal tragedies just like Flint residents have, but I still love my city, and I don’t see a better place for me to live.”
Dan Reyes is president of UAW Local 599, representing about 500active members and 9,000 retirees at GM’s Flint Engine North plant. Reyes was born in Flint. They sprang to action when the crisis began and haven’t stopped. “Our local did gate collection and approved $1,000 from the general fund to the food bank. Then, twice a week members distribute water to the food bank, the three community centers and other sites,” he said. The local already serves 360 families a month at the local food bank. “We were already in the service mindset,” said Reyes. “People sometimes don’t realize that the UAW has a heart, that we’ve always had a heart. When we deliver help some say, ‘Thank you. God bless you, UAW.’”
President Alex Leafi’s Local 651 includes members from many Flint area work sites, including General Motors, GM Davison Road Processing Center in Burton, Aramak, GM Global Facilities Warehouse in Grand Blanc, and over 6,000 retirees from AC Spark Plug/ Delphi Flint East. “Last fall we delivered water to five Flint schools that had the highest lead contamination levels,” said the Flint native. “We’ve had a lot members from all shifts work with the region to deliver water to the food bank, community centers, Montessori school downtown, the Flint YWCA and some churches. We’re still delivering water, many of us in our own trucks.
This has brought out more of the good in our members and has carried over into the worksites. You can tell.
People are more focused on each other,” he said. “There’s just too much hurt going on in the world and not enough fixing. I hope people are fed up and start voting for progressive candidates. Just take care of each other,” said Leafi.
Lorie Velasquez is shop chairwoman of Local 659 at Android Industries, also in Flint. The Flint native said Local 659 is always good about helping the community. “We’ve helped the United Way of Genesee County, Toys for Tots, the food bank, all of it. It’s what we’re here for, to help people.” Her fellow union member at Local 659, millwright and alternate committee member for skilled trades at Flint Metal Center, Jeremy Thibault, said Local 659 has delivered a lot of water from the food bank to the community centers in their own trucks, and some have gone door to door with water filters. “Stepping up as a UAW local is what it means to be part of Flint.” Thibault has a message for Flint residents: “We stand behind you, we see what you’re going through, and we’re all in this together.”
UAW locals also have provided water help by partnering with the United Way. Teresa McGinnis is with Local
1811, which represents workers in education and health care in the Flint area. She serves as the UAW’s Community Service Liaison for the United Way of Genesee County. “My first thought when we heard about the water crisis was, ‘How can we fix it?’ My background is in early childhood education, so I knew what we were doing to the kids with lead poisoning. I was born and raised in Flint, I work in Flint, and I have family members who live in Flint. I’m worried,” said McGinnis. “We started by delivering trucks of water for distribution even before it made national news. I’ve continued working with a dozen local presidents arranging water distribution or funds that are coming into Genesee County for the water fund program. I rely on a lot of people to coordinate water deliver quickly to the community centers, the food bank and the fire department,” she said. “UAW members are doing everything in our power to help Flint. Helping people in our communities is what we do,” McGinnis said.
Active members and retirees from other locals have also stepped up to provide large- scale bottled water delivery, financial contributions and other assistance to Flint residents, including Local 598 members from GM’s Flint Truck Plant, Aramark and Hamtramck Energy, Local 699 members at supplier Nexteer Automotive near Saginaw, north of Flint, state of Michigan employees from Local 6000 in Lansing, members of the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters union, the Teamsters and many other labor organizations.
Local 699 President Rick Burzynski says helping community members in need is a natural fit for the UAW. “Anytime we can help the community, we do it,” he said. Some Local 699 members live in Flint, and local members have been delivering water throughout the crisis, in their own vehicles every Friday, to the food bank and community centers. “Everybody wants to help,” said Burzynski.
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