POETRY: We are the public workers of New York City
A New York City subway cleaner empties her collection in a trash can in the Fulton Street station. | Richard Drew / AP

NEW YORK CITY—Chris Butters, a member of DC 37, AFSCME, wrote the following poem in 2013 in response to the destruction wreaked upon New York City by Hurricane Sandy. It appeared in a somewhat different form in the New York Chief-Leader, the weekly newspaper covering civil service workers. He sent it along to People’s World considering its continued relevance to the struggles of working people during the current pandemic. “The mayor” referred to in the poem was at that time Republican Michael Bloomberg.

We Are the Public Workers of New York City

Sanitation department workers prepare a sanitation truck with a plow and follow with wheel chains for snow removal. | Bebeto Matthews / AP

Ever notice how in every crisis
the rich, who call us “union thugs”
and “freeloaders” for being public workers
with our pensions, grow silent?

Whether it is the present pat on the back,
or the regular witchhunting
during normal times, the value
of our work goes unacknowledged.

Hurricane Sandy uproots trees
and powerlines.
Massive waves surge over barricades
built by the city like a juggernaut.

The mayor praises public workers
he has demonized his entire term
in this time of trouble
for our city.

Transit crews work overtime to repair
the subways flooded due to global warming.
Health workers work to treat
the wounded and the homeless.

The City needs money for public healthcare,
schools, and mass transit.
We don’t need more tax cuts for the rich
in their gated communities.

We need money for infrastructure
so disasters like Sandy won’t happen again.

They call us “thugs” and “freeloaders”
for being public workers, who still have benefits,
but we know who repairs the roads and sewers
and hospitals and schools,

New York City medical outreach worker Ella Cantrell, left, gives a shot to Wilson Maldonado in New York. | Seth Wenig / AP

who cares for the sick
and the poor, in the neighborhoods
where the rich
cannot be found,

we know who the real freeloaders are
with their production for profit agenda.

We make this city run, despite hurricanes,
snowstorms and terrorist attacks.

Cutbacks in social services by this mayor
for working people are another kind of disaster.

Without our labor, the wheels of this city
do not turn.

We are the public workers of New York City.
Watch us work. Watch us rise
to the occasion of Hurricane Sandy,
just as we did during the difficult months
after 9/11.

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Chris Butters
Chris Butters

Chris Butters is a socialist and labor activist, retired NYC court reporter, and a former DC 37 (AFSCME) chapter officer. In addition to participating in anti-racist and labor struggles, his poetry continues to be published in Blue Collar Review, a quarterly journal of poetry and prose published by Partisan Press, and many other literary and left poetry magazines.