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UAW member volunteers for Puerto Rico relief efforts

When the United Auto Workers asked for volunteers to fly to Puerto Rico to help with hurricane relief efforts, Lumi Irizarry stepped forward.

The 24-year-old member of UAW Local 686, who works at General Motors' Lockport components plant, has family connections to the hurricane-ravaged island. His grandmother lives there, along with cousins, aunts and uncles, according to the union.

Last week, the AFL-CIO arranged a flight from Newark, N.J., to Puerto Rico carrying about 300 union members, from more than 20 unions. The flight also carried 35,000 pounds of relief supplies including food, water and equipment. The passengers included 17 UAW members from around the country, said Brian Rothenberg, a UAW spokesman in Detroit.

The union members who made the trip included doctors, nurses, heavy equipment operators, mechanics and truck drivers, among many other occupations, said Gonzalo Salvador, an AFL-CIO spokesman. They were assigned to carry out tasks from repairing generators and air conditioning units, to medical visits and clearing roads.

In an account UAW 686 posted on Facebook, the union said Irizarry speaks fluent Spanish and was deployed to New York City with the National Guard in 2012 to support Superstorm Sandy relief efforts. Since getting hired at GM Lockport, Irizarry has received forklift and safety training. Union officials credited Terry Dittes, director of Amherst-based UAW Region 9, with helping make Irizarry's trip to Puerto Rico happen.

Lumi Irizarry, a worker at GM's Lockport plant who volunteered to help in Puerto Rico. (UAW 686 photo)

Irizarry could not be reached to comment Friday. The union quoted him as saying: "I am very excited that we can come together as a UAW family. It's a weight lifted off my shoulders knowing that my family in Puerto Rico are not alone. I am very thankful for this opportunity to help."

The region's two GM plants are supporting hurricane relief in other ways, as well.

The Lockport plant last week collected $1,829 in donations from workers for Puerto Rico. The funds were given to the United Way of Greater Niagara, which will send them to the United Way of San Juan for relief efforts.

GM's Tonawanda engine plant this week collected more than $5,300 for hurricane relief, about $2,200 of which will be directed to Puerto Rico, said Mary Ann Brown, a GM spokeswoman. The rest will be directed to hurricane relief efforts in Texas and Florida. UAW Local 774 president Wence Valentin III spearheaded the donation effort, Brown said.

A church on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, reached out to a church attended by Tony Lamont, a GM electrician and UAW 774 member at the Tonawanda plant, about obtaining a generator for a town on the island. St. Thomas was struck by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Lamont and Jerry Owczarczak, also an electrician and union member at the plant, contacted someone who could provide a generator, and they arranged to ship it to St. Thomas at their own expense, Brown said. As of Friday, the generator was in Miami, en route to the island.

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