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In Tragedy's Wake, Give the Unions Their Dues

by Stephen Siciliano Tuesday, Sep. 25, 2001 at 7:53 PM
highwayscribery@aol.com (323) 655-8668 650 South Sweetzer Ave.

Collective activity was the only way to help in the wake of September 11 and America's media was forced to focus for once on unions, the best at working together.

errorAnd so at last, beneath the specter of further tragedy, we must come together as a nation.

We purchase flags, light candles together and are pleasantly surprised at the strength we both lend to and draw from those around us. The magnitude of the wound afflicting us serves as an anything-but-subtle reminder of how little we can achieve as individuals and how thoroughly linked we are as members of the same collective union of communities.

For quite some time now, our commercial stars have been the leaders and founders of companies. We have made them poster boys and cover girls for the great individual ideal. Then came September 11 and we bore televised witness to the shattered spirit of Cantor Fitzgerald's CEO, now bereft of 700 employees, and were reminded that without workers an employer is nothing.


That this terrible thing, or at least a part of it, happened in a union town also meant that the media's klieg lights were forced to illuminate these venerable organizations usually relegated to dark anonymity.

Was there anyone not struck by the rare sight of a volunteer, a construction worker, identifying himself, first and foremost, by his labor affiliation - the International Union of Operational Engineers? Those who caught the segment saw him pointing to its logo on his T-shirt with a pride in identification befitting the newly signed member of some great sport franchise.

Who among us was not touched by the fellow-feeling, the shared grief expressed by firefighters for their fallen comrades, the "brothers" they so reverently invoked, reminding us that trade unions are, first and foremost, fraternal orders held together solely by the idea of solidarity?

And then there were the ironworkers. Volunteers who for days in a row worked alongside the firemen, confronting the same life endangering risk. Ironworkers are not trained for rescue, but who else was there?

Our is a society that wants to pay nothing for services led by a president who thought it best to break down the pooled resources, which made us states united in common cause, into pittances for unallied consumers.

It's tought to say whether a more progressive tax structure, or a society of less self-absorbed individuals, would have financed rescue services equal to the Herculean task dumped upon lower Manhattan. Still, the bottom line is that New York, America - we - had nowhere to look but to a local union of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers for help. Organized into a working and bargaining unit, highly skilled in their craft and given to laboring in a concerted way - these men proved up to the job both spiritually and physically.

There have been many reasons to cry in recent weeks, but watching the ironworkers strut cockily into what was literally a valley of death, insisting that there were lives that needed saving, at the very least provided a good cause for tears.

It has been a matter of public policy in this country for over 20 years now to undermine the strength of unions. The trend was born of a notion that they had become "too strong," were unAmerican, that the good wages, health plans and prosperity their members enjoyed had in some way been extorted from business and were sapping its strength.

When the president wasn't summarily firing unionized air traffic controllers, leaders of commmerce were devastating democratic unionism's ranks by dismantling the manufacturing base and sending both the wages and "recuperated" capital overseas. Politicians and captains of industry alike were turning this into a nation of individual contractors selling services to one another, part of nothing larger than the trajectory of our own ambitions, loyal to no one but ourselves.

Decades ago, the diabolical men who have forced America to its knees might have targeted a factory as the ultimate symbol of national power. Instead their ultimate target, the World Trade Center, was home to many analysts, brokerage houses and other financial resources; the very forces which have pushed for a fragmenting of America's workforce, the offshore export of its factory might, and a downsizing of the corporate franchise; exalting efficiency and the bottom line above all other values.

When the horror hit - irony of ironworkers - it was remnants of a cohesive America from a bygone era that were called upon to help and which heeded that call. They did so without hesitation, placing the victims' health and well being above their own.

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