The unexpected friendship between Randi Weingarten and Bill Horan might sound like the beginning of a joke: The president of the American Federation of Teachers — a progressive union leader who happens to be a lesbian married to a rabbi — and the president of the Christian nonprofit humanitarian organization Operation Blessing, founded by the controversial evangelical Pat Robertson, both walk into a bar. Can you guess what happens next?
Unlike the classic joke, Weingarten and Horan didn’t meet in a bar. They were introduced to each other last year, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, by Carmen Yulín Cruz (the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, whom you may remember went toe-to-toe with Donald Trump). What happened next may surprise — and delight — you.
Operation Blessing, which specializes in disaster relief, had been on the ground for two weeks in Puerto Rico, working to supply residents with water filters, among other essential goods and services. Power failures meant water treatment plants couldn’t operate, so they’d focused on that urgent need at Cruz’s request. Then Weingarten arrived in San Juan. She was particularly distressed by school closures, which spelled instability for students across the island.
She went to Cruz with one question: What can we do? Cruz pointed the union president in Horan’s direction and suggested she work with Operation Blessing to get clean drinking water into schools so they could reopen. So Horan and Weingarten rushed to form the partnership they called Operation Agua, a campaign to deliver 100,000 water filtration systems to dozens of communities throughout Puerto Rico. The gravity-fed filters are meant for households or community settings and can produce up to 10 gallons of clean water per day.
“We may be strange bedfellows, but it’s rare that people can just park whatever their political persuasions and ideology may be and try to help people in trouble, and that’s what happened here,” says Horan, who retired from Operation Blessing this year.
Weingarten first suggested raising money for the effort through AFT’s disaster relief fund. Then Operation Blessing could use that money to pay for more filters and filtration devices, which it was already obtaining at a discount from the bath and kitchen manufacturing company Kohler. Weingarten appealed to union members to pitch in.
That took the pressure off Operation Blessing to fundraise. By the time Hurricane Maria struck in mid-September last year, following the devastation wrought by Irma and Harvey, the nonprofit began to see a “donor fatigue” dip in contributions for hurricane relief. Horan says AFT’s fundraising — which has totaled about $2 million — likely doubled Operation Blessing’s impact in Puerto Rico.
Weingarten also secured support from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the Seafarers International Union (SIU); and the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), the island’s teachers union. Members of those organizations, as well as the Hispanic Federation, ultimately helped distribute the filters directly to communities in need.
It wasn’t long before TOTE Maritime, one of two shipping companies that operates vessels to and from Puerto Rico, agreed to send containers full of filtration systems from the U.S. to the island pro bono. Operation Blessing put its own expertise managing inventory and logistics to use. Operating out of a warehouse in San Juan, the nonprofit coordinated the distribution of shipping containers that arrived at the port, and received additional support from members of SIU.
Amancio Crespo, the SIU representative at the port, embraced his new calling. Acting as a conduit between the vessels, ship operators, and local communities, he ensured that filters made it to their intended destinations as quickly as possible. He tapped local union members to identify churches and community organizations whose members needed filtration devices.
Sometimes Crespo, the son of a Pentecostal minister, loaded up his own Dodge RAM 150 truck with pallets of filters and drove them to churches of all denominations where he had personal relationships. Hundreds of people would gather to receive a filter.
“The job was done right because it wasn’t just depending on one agency or one group of people — everyone deserves recognition,” he says. “I think we touched a lot of lives.”
By Christmas break, members of the AMPR had reached more than 270,000 students by distributing 3,849 water filters to most schools on the island. Operation Blessing trained members of the teachers union to assemble and clean the filters. The containers are reusable and the replaceable filters last for a year of continuous use, which means classrooms may well turn to them again in the wake of a hurricane. By the end of August, the group expects to bring the remaining 6,500 filtration systems to the island to meet the original distribution goal.
Weingarten and Horan forged what they hope is a lasting bond — and a model that people on different points of the political spectrum might consider emulating to help those in need.
“If you meet people where they are, and if you work on a values proposition — that in America we care about families and we care about their health and safety — then you can work with all sorts of strange bedfellows,” says Weingarten, echoing Horan’s phrase. “It starts creating trust and lessening the divisiveness in this country.”
It certainly helped, Weingarten and Horan say, that Cruz played matchmaker. Both of them trusted her vision and leadership. The campaign was also an effort to leverage Operation Blessing’s logistics expertise and the AFT’s vast union network in the name of bringing vulnerable people clean drinking water — a mission in which political fault lines are much easier to avoid than developing an alliance around, say, policy.
At a time when unions possess significantly diminished political power, Weingarten says what happened in Puerto Rico is a testament to their impact in local communities.
“We are a family, and caring is an important aspect of being part of a union,” she ways. “We’re fighting for things like wages and parental leave, but it’s also about caring and showing up.”
AFT has done previous relief work during other disasters, but the organization now has a “very robust” process for determining how it can contribute, says Weingarten. Neither she or Horan know exactly how they’ll partner together in the future, but both are hopeful their connection will endure.
“There was cooperation at every level,” says Horan. “No one cares who’s voting for who in the next election when it’s that type of cooperation.”