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Local unions making special delivery to Flint

Tony Vaccaro will slide behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer on Saturday morning to make a special delivery to Flint, Mich.

Vaccaro drove trucks for about 30 years before becoming a Teamsters business agent. He welcomed the chance to haul the 22 pallets of 2.5-gallon water jugs, to help bring relief to a city whose name has become synonymous with a contaminated water emergency.

Western New York union members have rallied to the cause, contributing thousands of dollars in just over a month. They will give the truck a sendoff from the Western New York Area Labor Federation’s annual meeting on Saturday in Amherst.

Vaccaro, who is with Teamsters Local 264, is looking forward to Sunday morning, when Flint residents will gather in a shopping center parking lot to receive the 17 tons of water.

“I can’t wait to see their faces,” he said.

Several union leaders will accompany him on the trip, in pickup trucks packed with cases of water in different-sized containers.

John Mudie, president of the Buffalo Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, said the idea was set in motion when William Mayer of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades called him in early February, urging local unions to do something to help the people of Flint.

“We put something together and put the word out, and donations started coming in like crazy,” Mudie said. Contributions came from across the labor federation, which consists of five labor councils covering union members in six counties.

The labor federation collected nearly $3,000 in donations to buy water jugs. An additional $3,000 raised will pay for filters for Flint residents. “The plumbers union out there is installing those filters at no cost,” Mudie said.

The labor federation also contributed about $1,500 to the cause, said Richard Lipsitz Jr., the labor federation’s president. “We’re making our own contribution to this national effort.”

Lipsitz said it was a natural for the labor unions to get involved.

“Flint is an overwhelmingly working class city, with a large percentage of African-American and other people of color, but also a large number of white working class people,” he said. “And their water’s been poisoned for a number of years.”

“Now you have a crisis of gigantic proportions that has to be addressed by the state and federal governments, and it also has to have help from volunteers,” he said. “We’re going to play that role.”

Tops Markets, whose warehouse workers are represented by the Teamsters, is also helping. The supermarket chain donated use of a tractor and trailer, and will cover tolls and fuel costs for the trip, Mudie said. Tops sold water to the labor federation at cost. Union leaders opted to provide water in larger containers, since residents need clean water to bathe and wash clothes, not just for drinking, Mudie said.

The truck will deliver water to a section of the city that hasn’t previously had a distribution site within walking distance, Mudie said. The local unions are coordinating with the United Way in Flint.

Sam Muma of the Greater Flint AFL-CIO Labor Council said the Buffalo unions’ donations will make an impact. “It’s hard to believe that a community can go through a hardship like this, not being able to use water. Communities don’t realize what their basic water needs are until you can’t use it.”

The Western New York Area Labor Federation’s annual meeting on Saturday will feature remarks by Les Leopold, a labor activist and author who has written about income inequality.

Employees at General Motors’ two area plants also showed generosity toward Flint.

The Tonawanda engine plant raised $4,250, while the Lockport Components Holdings plant raised $1,028. They sent their donations via the United Way.

GM has more than 7,000 employees in Flint. Steve Finch, the Tonawanda plant manager, lived in Flint for 11 years, while William Tiger, the Lockport plant manager, spent part of his career at the Flint engine plant.