Sunday, November 11, 2012

Union and nonunion help welcomed in hurricane's aftermath

As I was cleaning up leaves and debris in my yard in Massachusetts this past weekend, I mentioned to one my neighbors who had stopped by that one of the areas hard hit by Hurricane Sandy was SeasideHeights, a place on the New Jersey Shore that my family, high school friends and I used to frequent during the summers.

"Wasn't that where they turned away those utility linemen from Alabama who'd driven up to help get the power back on because they weren't union members?" he asked.

I didn't know and I hadn't heard about the incident. If it happened as he described, I was all set to write about how wrong it was, that the right thing when facing a crisis such as this was to forget about union affiliation and embrace the help offered.

It turns out, however, that the report aired by a localnews program in Alabama wasn't correct.

The six-man crew from Decatur, Ala., did travel to Seaside Heights, but communication "with Seaside Heights was poor due to lack of cellphone service in the area," a statement later issued by Decatur Utilities read. "As we waited for clarification, we became aware that Seaside Heights had received the assistance they needed from other sources. To be clear, at no time were our crews 'turned away' from the utility in Seaside Heights."

John Reitmeyer, a reporter for The Record in Bergen County, N.J., wrote that crews from a dozen other states and Canada traveled to New Jersey to assist utility crews. "New Jersey utility companies are taking all the help they can get from out-of-state crews-- including both union and nonunion -- as they scramble to turn power back on for those who've been in the dark for days now," he wrote.

Reitmeyer ended his report with a quote from Gov. Chris Christie that indicated he would block any effort to restrict out-of-state help. "I wouldn't allow it," he said. "I would invoke my powers of the Disaster Control Act."

The local Alabama TV station later posted the video of a press conference with Decatur Utilities General Manager trying to clarify what had happened.

At a time of crisis, it's good that people want to help.

In this case, the linemen from Decatur did the right thing by offering assistance. Those who actually made it to the disaster site to help did the right thing, as well. And Gov. Christie did right by making clear that the issue was never about union vs. nonunion employees. The biggest wrong was to try to sensationalize an issue that, by virtue of the fact that union and nonunion employees were indeed working side by side, did not exist. Focusing on getting help where it was needed was the right thing to do and by all accounts there were many who did just that.

There was clearly confusion in Hurricane Sandy's aftermath, not the least of which was that TV station's early report that fueled false rumors about unions protecting their turf. Sadly, that's all that sticks in my neighbor's head and likely the heads of others who heard the initial report but not the subsequent corrections. At least my neighbor now knows the fuller story. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Was there an ethical question in this scenario, Jeffrey?

Shmuel said...

There are a few implicit ones, such as "Do the media have the responsibility to get the story straight?" "Do others have the responsibility to verify wild media assertions before passing them along?" and "Is it ethical to tar and feather reporters?"

Also, "would it have been ethical to turn away non-union workers in emergency situations?" which Jeff notes (in the third paragraph) he would have answered with "no."

Anonymous said...

Well put by Jeffrey Seglin. In all of the comments about this particular situation and in some (not all) of the other discussions of the awful experience(s) in enduring Hurricane Sandy, this one sticks out as a situation made worse by sensationalistic reporting. It was bad enough that this tragedy happened but here the entire episode was simply a misunderstanding, willfully complicated by nasty reporting that had only one purpose, to stir up bad feelings.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

They ought to outlaw all unions,