Beyoncé is helping out. So are Cher and one of the Detroit Lions, not to mention the Plumbers, Auto Workers and Laborers, to name a few. If there is a silver lining to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., it’s the outpouring of assistance from the public and in no small part labor unions, including IBEW locals.

Flint residents hold bottles of contaminated water and a clump of hair during a news conference. Image courtesy of Getty.

“It’s a disgrace what has happened to the people of Flint,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “If ever there was time for solidarity and coming together to help our brothers and sisters, it’s now and it’s in Flint.”  

In 2014, in an effort to save money, a state-appointed “emergency manager” decided to switch Flint’s water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River. Without proper treatment, the heavily contaminated water then leached into the lead pipes that run throughout the city and into people’s homes, bathtubs and drinking glasses.

What happened after included a series of ignored signs of the mounting disaster. The number of children with high levels of lead in their blood doubled. Bacteria including E. coli and cancer-causing chemicals were found in the water, which was visibly filthy.

It was so bad that MLive, an online Michigan news publication, reported in October 2014 that a Flint-area General Motors plant stopped using the water for fear of corrosion to its car parts.

The city has since switched back to the cleaner water source, but the lead pipes are still in use. In addition to residents reporting rashes and other health issues, news outlets have reported that some 8,000 children have been exposed to an element known to cause irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system.

Solidarity and Solutions

The crisis has received national attention and many questions remain unanswered, but what cannot be disputed is that the residents of Flint have been and are continuing to receive polluted water. That is where IBEW locals have stepped in to help.

In Michigan’s capital city of Lansing, Local 352 members collected about 100 cases of bottled water, as well as 200 gallon jugs. They also worked with a local church to raise over $1,500. But that’s not why they are getting national attention.

The water crisis in Flint, Mich. has spurred many to action, including Detroit Local 58. Pictured here, Local 58 business representatives Bill Green, left, Paul VanOss and Tom Diedrichs coordinate a water drive. Image courtesy of Local 58.

Local 352 is also the home of a new technology in lead pipe removal, a less disruptive and quicker method for switching old pipe to copper. These Lansing Board of Water and Light employees have replaced over 13,000 pipes this way since 2004.

The technique has proven successful and even caught the attention of major media, including The Rachel Maddow Show. As Maddow discovered, whereas the previous method required digging a giant trench and tearing up the entire street, the new version is more “laparoscopic,” to borrow a less invasive surgical term, requiring only two relatively small holes.

Local 352 members helped pioneer the new procedure and tools that cut and remove old lead cable while also pushing through and replacing it with safer copper pipes. And two lead services, or homes, can be done in one day – twice as fast as the traditional method.

Now these members are heading east to Flint to share their technology. According to an estimate done by the Lansing utility, it will cost about $55 million and take 130 people to replace all of the lead pipes in in Flint within a year.  

“We’ve been doing this for more than 10 years and we know it works,” said Local 352 Business Manager Ron Byrnes. “It can work in Flint too.”

For its part, Flint’s hometown Local 948 has been coordinating water drives and directing people who are interested in helping to the Genesee County United Way, which is working with the area Red Cross and the Michigan Community Service Commission to run a volunteer center.

“It’s a shame, what happened,” said Local 948 Business Manager Jay Freeman. “But the outpouring of support has been huge.”

Local 948 collected close to 20 pallets of water for the Eastern Michigan Food Bank and is working with the area Genesee-Lapeer-Shiawassee Building Trades to donate money to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which goes to a designated fund to help with the health issues of affected children.

South of Flint, Detroit Locals 17 and 58 have stepped up, as well as the Sixth District RENEW chapter, also known as Reach out and Engage Next-gen Electrical Workers. Local 58 Business Manager Michael Richard said that the locals sent close to 3,000 cases of water to Flint.

Richard said Local 58 is also working with fellow building trades members to assist with the lead pipe replacement and whatever else needs to be done.

The Chicago chapter of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus joined up with the southeast Michigan chapter to donate and distribute $2,300 in bottled water. Pictured here are Nannette Culp (left), Felicia Wiseman, Kevin Mack, Peter Thurston and Leticia Zepeda.

Local 58 member Adam Hentschel, who heads the Sixth District RENEW chapter, said that RENEW has been working with the Carpenters and Plumbers to coordinate water drives.

Chicago Local 134 and its Electrical Workers Minority Caucus have also been providing assistance.

“This type of community service falls in line with what we do all the time,” said EWMC Chicago Chapter President Joseph K. Wells. “It was just a matter of how we were going to go about it.”

After learning from the Chicago Federation of Labor about a water relief program run by Michigan grocery chain Meijer, Wells met with Local 134 Business Manager Don Finn and President Thomas Manning and the decision was made to purchase $2,300 worth of bottled water with money from their general fund, which was delivered by the Teamsters.

Wells and other EWMC members distributed the water in Flint with the help of the Southeast Michigan EWMC chapter.

“It was good to be able to help,” said Southeast Michigan EWMC President Felicia Wiseman, who participated. “I can’t even fathom what it’s like, to have to go every day without any water.”

Wells and Wiseman both said they are considering other ways to help, which may be collecting items like hand sanitizer and wipes.

For information on how to help the residents of Flint, visit Flint Local 948's volunteer page.

Home page photo credit: Flint water tower photo credit: Flickr user Ben Gordon.