USW Specialized Emergency Response Trainers visit southern California

Twelve Specialized Emergency Response Trainers (SERTs), along with Tony Mazzocchi Center (TMC) and Labor Institute consortium partner staff, met in Pasadena, Calif., in late spring 2023.

The week-long visit, to engage potential partner organizations for future cooperation around disaster preparedness, produced positive and lasting results.

The SERTs met with no less than seven organizations. Among them were the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH), Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (SoCal COSH), Watts CERT program, Las Angeles County Department of Public Health, and Angeles National Forest, of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Each day, the SERTs connected with leadership-level representatives from the organizations and discussed ways to create pathways for future communication.

Given the United Steelworkers (USW)’s presence in southern California (USW District 12), the SERTs leadership decided that due to the range of probable disasters in the area, an active investigation was needed to know what specific kinds of preparedness curriculum might be needed for both the union and community groups. Since the SERTs themselves come with formidable range of health and safety experience from diverse industrial sectors, a high level of synergy between the SERTs and the guests was maintained throughout week.

One of the field visits had SERTs members role-playing street-level recruitment. The exercise was led by activists from NDLON (a consortium member under the Worker Education Training Program grant, administered by the TMC). This person-to-person method of organizing is a tried-and-true method of organizing in the labor movement. Over many years, NDLON has amassed a wide array of educational pamphlets, ranging from worker rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to disaster cleanup basic guidelines to communicable diseases. The overarching lesson learned by these activities was fundamental: workers are best protected by those organizations which involve workers at the ground level.

A highlight of the visit involved SERTs appearing on NDLON’s radio show called “Radio Jornalera” (day laborer radio). The show airs around the clock nationally by way of the Internet. It covers issues such as wage theft, health and safety abuses, as well as public health issues. Additionally, the show features key activists relaying updates on a wide array of campaigns involving immigrant workers. SERTs leaders, Arturo Archila (Labor Institute) and Debora Gonzales (NDLON) were featured on the show and they talked about the role that immigrant workers are playing in disaster cleanups nationwide, from floods in northern California to hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and in Puerto Rico. It is no secret that extreme weather events are quickly becoming the norm; and given NDLON’s increasing ties with the USW, the possibility of working hand in hand on common issues, is every day becoming more of a reality.

Another highlight during the week was when Fire Prevention Battalion Chief Seneca Smith (Angeles National Forest, USDA Forest Service) educated the SERTs on the nature of fires in southern California. This included scenarios in which urban centers become rapidly engulfed by lethal fires. Discussed were prevention techniques that the forest service employs throughout the year as well as an overview on how area governmental departments and community groups communicate as emergencies unfold. This was especially useful in that fire emergencies are a relatively new area of activity for the SERTs. Afterwards, the whole group toured the Hahamongna Watershed Park where they got to experience firsthand the types of regional plants that are the most combustive. The hike also served as a refreshing break from the week-long educational activities in the hotel conference room.

The visit to southern California substantially amplified the SERTs team’s arsenal of disaster preparedness knowledge. These new perspectives were directly applied to the SERTs enhancement training at USW headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa., in July. During that week-long meeting, new SERTs recruits were introduced not only to the lessons learned in Pasadena, but also to those from the visit to New Orleans, La., in 2022.