Former President Barack Obama said: "When times are tough, we don't give up. We get up."
That's precisely what municipal workers did when the coronavirus struck.
At a time of unimaginable grief... when a sudden, highly contagious virus rocked the entire world—and our own personal, little world—city workers, including members of my union, Local 237, didn't give up, they got up and went to work.
School Safety Agents, NYCHA workers, special police officers in public hospitals, homeless shelters and on CUNY campuses, the food-service workers in public schools and the radiologists in neonatal units—to name just a few of the titles our members hold—were on the job. Seemingly overnight, the status of being an "essential worker" took on a new and often deadly meaning.
During these tough times that drenched us in dread, and paralyzed so many with fear, there would sometimes be no final hug, goodbye or sacraments to meet our maker. But city workers went to work. Those who were lost or became ill were friends, co-workers, mentors, "students". We shared family, good times and bad, complained about the job—and often, each other.
More Than Just Stats
Our-co-workers were not just the reported stats on the numbers of positive tests or fatalities. They were our union brothers and sisters for whom our usual work routines took a turn never expected, and unable to be ignored.
In the years to come, there will be countless books written trying to explain and help us understand this horrific time in the history of the world which resulted in so much loss. Some of that loss involved loss of confidence in government and our leaders, too. Confidence is shattered in so many ways—in the quality and equality of our health-care system, as well as in our nation's ability to achieve true racial justice. It is no wonder that tensions are high, with instances of police brutality being met head-on with protesters, underscoring why Black Lives Matter is a movement and not just a moment in our nation's history. How ironic it is that we just recently lost one of America's great heroes, civil-rights icon and 17-term Congressman John Lewis, who while dying of pancreatic cancer appeared publicly for the last time in June—looking frail and holding a cane—to visit the new Black Lives Matter mural painted on 16th St. in Washington, D.C., next to the White House. Standing there, Lewis said: "I think the people in D.C. and around the nation are sending a mightily powerful and strong message to the rest of the world that we will get there." He spoke as a man who never gave up his belief in nonviolence, even though he had been brutally beaten many times as he engaged in peaceful marches and demonstrations, and, who 57 years ago, at age 23, stood a few blocks away at the Lincoln Memorial and declared during the March on Washington: "We cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now."
Analyses of the pandemic and all of the heartache it generated will bolster or refute the endless rounds of the blame-game that will be played by political wannabees and pundits. And, we'll also pause to reflect on how something so devastating could have crept up on us. How could this nation have lost more lives in just three months than in years of our fighting the Vietnam War, Gulf War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War combined?
Some Paid Greater Price
And the racial inequality of the lives lost! In the beginning, we may have been hopeful for a happy, Hollywood-style ending, but the problem and the pain didn't quickly subside and seemed never-ending.
But in all of this darkness, there are many examples of the best of people on display. Health-care professionals, first-responders, transit workers are among those who risked their lives to save the lives of others. And how about the 22,000 volunteers from other states who rushed to New York to help us out. But we also don't need to look beyond our own municipal workers to see the best examples of the best of people. Our members at Local 237, like their brothers and sisters in the other public-sector unions, did their jobs to safeguard the most vulnerable populations in New York City. They did their work to help keep New York functioning and rebound. Unfortunately, many made the ultimate sacrifice doing it.
Public workers epitomized what David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times wrote a in a recent column: "One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn't coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you."
So, what do we do now? We must have more testing, reliable treatments, and a preventive cure. The frightening facts of the quality and inequities of our nation's health care cannot be ignored. They must be fixed. But, there is also another concern to consider: What will we do when the health crisis ends? Will the heartbreak and bitterness end, too?
We should savor the good times; prioritize what truly matters and don't squander our blessings. Human kindness is a treasure more valuable than any stack of gold. And the love and support of our family, friends and coworkers makes us billionaires.
Remember what John Lewis, a sharecropper's son, who went on to become a revered member of Congress, said: "Sometimes, in the very essence of anguish that is liberating, cleansing, redemptive....adding that suffering opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral, the force of righteous truth that is at the basis of human conscience."
Mr. Floyd is President, Teamsters Local 237 and Vice President at Large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters
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