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Vol. 81/No. 41      November 6, 2017

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Working-class solidarity got many out of harm’s way in Calif. wildfire

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — On Oct. 19, Socialist Workers Party campaigners Eric Simpson, Raul Gonzalez and myself spent several hours talking to workers here, part of Sonoma and Napa counties in Northern California hit hard in recent weeks by rapidly spreading fires. The fires resulted in 42 deaths and the destruction of some 8,400 homes and other structures.

The crisis facing working people in the area, however, is not simply the result of fires. The dog-eat-dog capitalist for-profit system turned the natural disaster into a social catastrophe. There was no preparation or warning to workers as the fires swept through. Since then workers face a lack of housing, supplies and jobs and profit-gouging at every turn.

Our first stop was a meeting with Nicole Muela and Alondra Gomez, her co-worker at a photo studio. Muela is Gonzalez’s niece. The fire that hit Santa Rosa started in the evening Oct. 8.

“We smelled smoke around 10:30 p.m. and my 13-year-old son says, ‘something ain’t right,’” Muela said. “He walked outside, and it was really smoky. But there was no alarm from the city, so we went to bed.”

“The people themselves were the true first responders,” Muela said. Many workers we talked to said the same thing. It was working-class solidarity that made the difference in keeping death and destruction down and helping people get out of danger.

“I think people didn’t have enough warning,” she said. “I got calls from my dad and my brother a few hours later telling us to ‘get the hell out.’ We piled into our truck and went to my boyfriend’s mother’s house in Graton. What’s normally a 15-minute ride took an hour because of congestion on the roads.

“It was raining down ash and you could feel the heat,” she said.

“My cousin lost his house,” Gomez added. “My aunt was a patient at Kaiser hospital that night, they evacuated her. They didn’t have enough personnel on hand, but her son and other people joined in helping load the patients onto city buses to get them out.”

We talked with Tina Silva, who works at a gym. She said she got a call from a co-worker’s wife at 2 a.m. saying the city is on fire. There was no warning, she said.

“There was panic and confusion,” she said. “People didn’t know where to go for safety. It took my boyfriend and I two and half hours to get to Rohnert Park, normally a half-hour drive. All the motels were full.” They slept in their car and the next day found out they were among the lucky ones who could go back home.

Silva was eager to talk about the crisis working people face in the U.S. today. “I thought Michelle and Barack Obama were very attractive. They had charisma,” she said. “But they let the people down.”

She told us she voted for Donald Trump in 2016. “I saw him the same way. He talked straight,” she said.

“As a Hispanic woman I voted for him. Some people called me a Mexican traitor,” she laughed. “The government treats working people like we’re dumb. They try to inspire fear to divide us. Now I’m scared of how Trump is, threatening countries and people,” she said.

Workers help each other
Like others we talked to, Silva was struck by how working people banded together to help each other in the wake of the fires. “I love the unity that was shown during the fire,” she said.

She was receptive to the revolutionary political perspectives we presented, and how we did it — going to workers’ homes and discussing the necessity of uniting the working-class and building a powerful movement to take political power out of the hands of the capitalists. She got a subscription to the Militant and copies of Are They Rich Because They're Smart? and The Clintons’ Anti-Working-Class Record by party National Secretary Jack Barnes, and Is Socialist Revolution in the US Possible? by SWP leader Mary-Alice Waters. Other workers we talked to were interested. Overall we sold five Militant subscriptions and two copies of each of the three books.

Some neighborhoods in Santa Rosa are home to a number of immigrant workers drawn to the area by jobs in the wineries, hotels, restaurants and construction. “The grape harvest was done and now there is no work in the vineyards,” Juan, a disabled field worker, told us. “For those without papers there is no unemployment pay.”

While we were talking several people came and went from his house. “We have to live together to pay the rent, which just doesn’t stop going up,” he said.

Landlords have jacked up rents for area housing 44 percent between 2011 and August 2017 before the fire. Now they’ve soared 16 times faster in Sonoma County — where Santa Rosa is — and 22 times faster in Napa.

“There are pop-up encampments all over the city,” Adrienne Lauby, who runs Homeless Action here, told the Guardian Oct. 23. “People are sleeping in the parks, they’re staying in their cars — there are still 425 people in the shelters.”

At another house we met Francisco, a carpenter, who used to work as a heavy machine operator. We asked if he could get back to rebuilding homes destroyed by the fire. “They only want young people who can keep up with the pace,” he said. “Where I’m at they keep asking me to do more things and learn new skills, but when I ask for a raise, there’s never any money.”

The SWP campaigners told those we met that our party fights for a federally funded massive public works program to put people to work at union scale to build houses, schools and other things workers need in the wake of the fires. We said the jobs should be open to everyone, regardless of whether they had what the government deems proper papers or not.  
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