Gregory Floyd, President, Teamsters Local 237 and Vice President at-large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (58516)
Gregory Floyd, President, Teamsters Local 237 and Vice President at-large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters

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. And so, during these tough times that drenched us in dread and paralyzed so many in fear, an unnerving time that sadly, for some, meant there would be no final hug, goodbye or sacraments to meet our maker, city workers went to work. Those who were lost or became ill were our friends, our co-workers, our mentors, our “students.” Together, we shared good times and bad, complained about the job—and often, each other. We hung Christmas decorations in the lunchroom, sang “Happy Birthday” and devoured the cake we all chipped in to buy. We’d have heated debates about why the Knicks blew their lead, swap recipes for the best-ever chili—with samples brought in to share—and sling good-natured barbs about any changes to their “style.” To us, our-co-workers are not just the reported stats on the numbers of positive tests or fatalities. They are 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, movies too, college courses and TV “talking heads” galore, all trying to explain and help us understand this horrific time in the history of the world which resulted in so much loss. And those losses are almost incalculable, not just in terms of people and their livelihood, but in terms of their loss of confidence in government and our leaders too. Confidence is shattered in so many ways—in the quality and equality of our healthcare 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 although 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 Street 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 67 years ago, at age 23, stood a few blocks away at the Lincoln Memorial and declared at the March on Washington: “We cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.”

No doubt in the years ahead, there will be numerous analyses on the pandemic and all of the heartache it generated…studies designed to 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 how something so devastating could have crept up on us, caught us off-guard. How could this nation have lost more lives in just three months than in 10 years of our fighting the Vietnam War, Gulf War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War combined? And the racial inequality of the lives lost! The pandemic crisis is like a movie. A bad movie. But, who would ever have thought that a 2-hour movie you could have enjoyed with buttered popcorn and M&Ms—a movie that scared you silly the whole time it was on the big screen—but nonetheless, didn’t stop you from enjoying your burger and fries at McDonald’s after the mayhem from Hollywood had ended—who would ever have thought that the movie would be coming to us in real-life and in real time? The actors in this flick don’t take off their pancake makeup at the end of the day’s filming and head over to their favorite pub to throw back a few. No backlot here. The “actors,” unfortunately, are all of us! 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 seem never-ending.

But in all of this darkness, there are many examples of the best of people on display. Healthcare professionals, first responders, transit workers are among those who risk 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, in a place they don’t know, for people they don’t know. All they knew was that there are people in need. 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. Those workers, defined as essential workers, did their work to help keep New York functioning and help it rebound. Unfortunately, many made the ultimate sacrifice doing it. True to former President Obama’s words, public workers did “get up.” They epitomize 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? Certainly, we are all prayerful that this pandemic ends soon and for good. 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? And, what about the long-time, systemic race problems in our nation, which once again reached a boiling point—no doubt instigated by the raw inequalities of COVID-19—and are just as deadly as any virus. That makes me wonder about a Holocaust survivor who suffered the unimaginable inhumanity of a Nazi concentration camp; or the viciousness many African Americans endured living in the deep south of this country in the ’50s and ’60s; the brutality of genocide in Uganda; or the savagery of the 9/11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Towers—a day none of us will ever forget! How did those victims, those families, live on? How do our city workers, and the families of our lost union brothers and sisters, live on? Or, does the pain from this coronavirus and the grief it brought destroy us forever? But what does lingering bitterness get you? Though I leave the speculation to historians, there seems to be some undeniable lessons to learn: 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. And 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.”