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Coalition Of Residents, Unionists, And Activists Coming Together In East Palestine To Demand Health Care

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This story originally appeared in Pittsburgh Union Progress on March 19, 2024. It is shared here with permission.

Here’s the story of two men. One is a Trump-supporting blue-collar conservative from a small town in rural Ohio; the other is the son of a Mexican immigrant and describes himself as a socialist and a “lefty nut job.” They’ll be getting together later this week, and of course they’ll soon come to blows, right? Or at least hurl insults at each other?

That’s the narrative we’ve all come to expect. You see it on cable news shows, on social media. Division is hot these days.

But in the real world, the one in which trains fly off their tracks and spill toxic loads in America’s backyards, Chris Albright and Maximillian Alvarez recognize they have more in common than that which separates them.

That bond will be on display Saturday, during an event in East Palestine, Ohio, involving local residents, unionists, community activists and environmentalists from around the country. They’re getting together to demand the federal government step in and make certain those affected by the derailment are provided with health care.

The get-together will feature music and a lineup of speakers that includes residents of East Palestine and other communities affected by toxic contamination as well as union organizers and journalists. Initiated by the newly formed coalition Justice for East Palestine Residents and Workers, the event runs from noon to 5 p.m. at East Palestine Country Club, 50834 Carmel Anchor Road, Negley, OH 44441 (moved from the First Church of Christ).

Albright and Alvarez met in September during a Harvard Law School “Systemic Justice Teach-In” that focused on telling the story of the Norfolk Southern derailment. Albright lives a half-mile from the derailment site, and his family tale is one of financial stress, social isolation and illness. Doctors diagnosed Albright with a heart condition in March 2023; his cardiologist believes chemicals from the derailment, or stress, likely exacerbated his condition. In May, his wife, Jessica, ended up in the emergency room with what was described as stroke-level blood pressure.

Alvarez, in his job as editor of the independent Real News Network, has covered the rail industry and the aftermath of the derailment. He’s interviewed a number of East Palestine residents.

“When I met Chris and Jess for the first time, I didn’t see Trump voters,” Alvarez said. “I didn’t see race, I saw flesh and blood human beings who were experiencing something devastating and whose needs were so apparent. I just felt connected to them on that level. Once we shook hands and talked, that’s all Chris and Jess saw as well. They didn’t see the piercings and the tattoos. We realized we were kindred spirits who believed in the basic values of kindness and neighborliness.”

Albright admits to being a bit wary when he first saw Alvarez. “He’s got an intimidating look,” Albright said. “But we’ve become friends. I know about his wife, his foster daughter, his parents, his cat. He’s a great human being, one of the great souls I’ve met.”

After that initial meeting, the two worked together in December to organize a 12-hour online video fundraiser for those affected by the derailment. Hosted by Alvarez, the event highlighted residents who discussed the difficulties of living in a contaminated community. Those stories caught the attention of union activist Steve Zeltzer, host of a labor-focused radio program in San Francisco.

 Zeltzer talked with Albright and Jeff Kurtz, a retired railroad engineer, union member and former Iowa state representative, about organizing an in-person event in East Palestine that focused on a specific topic: demanding government-funded health care for those in East Palestine and surrounding communities. This could be done by invoking a law allowing President Joe Biden to issue a major disaster declaration and unlocking federal resources for East Palestine’s recovery.

This was something a coalition of East Palestine residents have been seeking for months. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine waited until July to ask the Biden administration to make the declaration. In September, Biden took what some called “baby steps” by ordering the appointment of a dedicated coordinator for the recovery efforts and directed federal agencies to continue holding Norfolk Southern accountable. But he stopped short of making the disaster declaration.

In January, Zeltzer organized a series of Zoom meetings to discuss his idea of an East Palestine event.

“It blossomed from there,” he said. “Other residents, environmentalists, union people got involved — people who want to see the residents get health care. If we can win health care for East Palestine, that will be a real victory for all working people.”

Labor organizers in Iowa committed to bringing a busload of people to East Palestine. Food & Water Watch is chartering a bus to the village, with pickup locations in Pittsburgh and Beaver County.

“I can’t believe how quickly it has moved forward,” said Penny Logsdon, president of the Lee County Labor Chapter in Keokuk, Iowa. She was one of the first to coalesce around the idea and attended the early meetings.

“It just gives everybody confidence it was meant to be,” she said. “We are a very outgoing labor chapter and whenever something has been brought to our attention by one of our members, I’ve never heard, ‘No, we can’t do it,’ or ‘it’s too difficult.’ It’s always, ‘What can we do?’ And that’s the attitude we’ve taken towards this.”

The Iowa connection proved strong. Albright traveled to Des Moines  in late February to tell his family’s story during an Iowa Federation of Labor conference. “The people of East Palestine are still experiencing the fallout from the derailment,” he told attendees. “We’re still dealing with everything that happened. There are still people who are sick, still people not working. The media forgot about it, the nation forgot about it, but we’re still dealing with it.”

Kurtz, himself an Iowa resident, met Albright in early October, when the two were guests on a podcast hosted by Alvarez. Afterward, Kurtz’s local — he’s a 40-year member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Local 391 — collected gift cards and water for East Palestine residents. During a trip east to visit family members, Kurtz stopped by the Albright home to make a personal delivery. The family’s predicament struck Kurtz when he met the Albright’s 8-year-old daughter, Evy.

“That really hit me hard,” Kurtz said. “I’ve got two granddaughters, 8 and 10 years old, and if they were in that position, I’d do everything I could to help them.”

Albright, who describes himself as “just a guy who lives in East Palestine,” has found himself at the center of an environmental disaster that has, at times, garnered national attention. Like a number of other residents, he’s been asked to discuss the town’s predicament on national news networks such as CNN and Fox News. In August, his family’s story was detailed in a New York Times story. But it’s the appearances on the Real News Network, and the connections made there, that resulted in Saturday’s event.

“A lot of people I’ve never met from around the country are stepping up to help us,” Albright said. “It’s amazing. If there’s one positive thing I can bring out of this is the people I’ve met over the course of the past year. People are willing to help even though this hasn’t really affected them.”

Alvarez is a first-generation Mexican American; his father, Jesus, was 8 years old when he immigrated to the United States from Mexico. The Great Recession of 2008 proved devastating to the family. The recovery that followed didn’t seem to apply to them. Alvarez’s father lost the house in which he’d raised his family.

How do people react when they feel mistreated by a political system in which they feel so powerless? Alvarez sees hope in the efforts that have led to this weekend’s conference.

“Even though the circumstances that have brought us together in this fight are horrifying and unforgivable, I see in this gathering the flame we need lighting the way to the change we deserve,” he said.

“Working people — East Palestine residents and people of conscience around the country, union and non-union, young and old, Democrat, Republican, socialists and apolitical folks, labor unions, environmental organizations, community members from other sacrifice zones, journalists and activists — are done waiting for justice, aid and accountability to be handed down from on high, from the government or from Norfolk Southern, and they are banding together and using their collective power to force the issue and make change happen themselves.”

Food & Water Watch has organized a bus to take Pittsburgh- and Beaver-area participants to East Palestine and back. Learn more and sign up at  https://www.mobilize.us/fww/event/612933/.

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