TRULY HONORING THE VICTIMS OF SEPTEMBER 11
By Dick Meister
The thousands of office and professional workers who died in the
September 11 terrorist attacks, the hundreds of firefighters, policemen and
medical workers who died trying to rescue them, the pilots and flight
attendants and their passengers who were killed -- all naturally deserve
our honor, their families our sympathy and financial aid.
But neither should we overlook the janitors, window cleaners, dishwashers,
busboys, security guards, elevator starters and other low-wage service
employees who died in the attacks and the thousands who now face severe
Many who worked in the World Trade Center and nearby, living from
paycheck-to-paycheck, are unemployed, with few prospects of work in the
foreseeable future and no savings to help them and their families manage in
the meantime. Many have the added burden of being illegal immigrants who
fear that seeking government aid will subject them to deportation. Some
aren't even aware of what help may be available.
Don't forget, either, the many thousands of others being laid off from jobs
in the aviation industry, the many now-jobless hotel and restaurant workers
across the country, and the many others who were employed in the wide
variety of industries hit hard by the economic slowdown that's followed the
attacks. They also are in serious financial need.
The numbers are staggering. Total layoffs in the airline and related
industries alone are likely to reach 500,000 -- or more. In hotels and
restaurants, the total may very well be even higher, maybe twice that.
Some of those laid off are under union contracts that promise severance pay
and continuation of employer-paid health insurance and other benefits. But
those supposed guarantees are simply not being honored by some companies
that plead they are on the verge of bankruptcy or going out of business.
Congress and President Bush moved swiftly to provide relief for the airlines
that have taken the hardest economic hits. But nothing in the $15 billion
relief package was earmarked for aiding laid-off workers. The measure didn't
even require trimming the obscene seven-figure salaries of airline
Ignoring the needy workers was an "unconscionable, divisive and
economically irresponsible omission," as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
Bush, under pressure from organized labor and its Democratic Party allies
and despite counter-pressure from his fellow Republicans, has since proposed
granting expanded unemployment and health insurance coverage to some
laid-off workers in the airline industry and others, as well as tax cuts for
lower income workers generally.
But as Sweeney and the Democrats note, the President's proposals are not
nearly enough to meet the need. Unemployment and health insurance coverage
must be expanded far beyond what Bush has proposed and tax cuts for workers
must go much deeper.
The AFL-CIO is putting its considerable political clout behind
Democratic-sponsored legislation that would grant laid-off workers at least
double the maximum 26 weeks of unemployment payments the government usually
provides. The bills also would give laid-off aviation workers at least a
year of federally-financed health insurance, training if they needed it to
prepare for other jobs, and grants to help pay the relocation costs of those
who'd have to move in order to take available jobs.
Those are but stop-gap measures. The AFL-CIO also is developing a
long-range proposal for putting the badly lagging U.S. economy back on
Airline workers themselves have proposed through their unions a series of
measures that would greatly enhance airline safety.
In the meantime, unions in all fields have been collecting hundreds of
thousands of dollars nationwide for relief funds allocated to distressed
workers and their families.
Organized labor certainly has the right to a big voice in post-attack
planning. Members of more than a dozen white collar and blue collar unions
died in the attacks, more than 300 members of the Firefighters Union alone.
Thousands of union volunteers from New York and several other states,
joined firefighters and policemen in rescue operations. Among them were
construction workers who belonged to the unions whose members helped build
the World Trade Center. Teamster Union volunteers who trucked in food,
communications equipment and other needed supplies. Psychologist members of
the Teachers Union who helped victims' families and others cope with
swirling emotions. Members of dozens of other unions who fanned out across
New York City and Washington, D.C., soliciting relief funds and collecting
food and clothing for surviving victims. The union response was
It was important, too, that AFL-CIO President Sweeney cautioned his 13
million members -- and everyone else -- to "remember that this was an act of
terrorists, not an Arab attack, and reject anti-Arab retaliation or
But Sweeney's most important task, the primary task of organized labor,
remains strengthening the economic and social position of the American
worker. That is the only way to truly meet the needs of the many workers
who've suffered from terrorism, the only way to truly meet the needs of us
Copyright Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has
covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.