News & Politics

Labor in Mourning


Organized labor traditionally marks workers Memorial Day—its annual indictment of government and management for failing to adequately ensure on-the-job safety—at a street corner off Washington Square where 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911.

Last week, however, in an effort to broaden its focus and lay claim to some portion of the Nation’s 9-11 homage, organizers held the event in the streets surrounding the enormous crater that was once the World Trade Center, a place where some 600 union members were among the 3000 who died and where hundreds of other union workers have been laboring ever since in the cleanup.

“We mourn those who were doing their jobs that day,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, standing before the altar of Trinity Church on lower Broadway, where a mass for those who perished was held. “They were fighting the fires, waiting on tables, sweeping the floors.”

Seven and a half months after thousands of its members raced to the World Trade Center collapse to begin the grisly task of digging out, organized labor last week had officially arrived on the scene to mourn.

Beneath Trinity’s vaulted ceilings, Robert Narducci, a member of Local 32B-J of the Service Employees International Union, read from the Book of Isaiah; Lillian Roberts, the newly elected chief of District Council 37, read the 23rd Psalm; and Kevin Gallagher, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, read from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A choir of union members sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Amazing Grace.”

The church officially holds about 325 but there were at least twice that number present, with men and women in sweatshirts and dungarees, carrying their hard hats, standing crowded in the aisles alongside union officials in double-breasted suits. When the service was over, they marched out onto Broadway, the Sword of Light bagpipers from Local 3 of the electricians union leading the way. They hung a right on Rector Street and turned up Church Street and alongside the still inconceivably empty site where the twin towers had stood.

“We’ve been here every minute,” said Bobby Compton of Laborers Local 731, the excavators’ union. He walked alongside Larry Kudla of Teamsters Local 282, whose members have loaded and hauled the twisted rubble. New York City’s construction jobs came to a weeklong halt after the attack, not because of safety concerns but because every hard hat was at the trade center, working around the clock for free. All the usual banes of construction—jurisdictional disputes, late-shows, featherbedding, cost over-runs—have been absent from the trade center excavation.

“All that stuff went right out the window,” said Compton. “Everybody just wanted to get the job done.”

It has also been the city’s safest major construction site, with only 35 accidents serious enough to warrant a missed day of work among the more than 1500 men and women working there.

All of which made for a rough segue between honoring those who had died and those who have served in the cleanup, and the still crucial issues of workplace safety. Despite the immediate response of organized labor to the tragedy, and the crucial, unstinting efforts of its members, it has done little to emphasize its own role in 9-11. Movie stars and politicians rushed to ground zero to have their pictures taken amid the rubble, while labor was only a vague, blurred image in the background. The decision to move the memorial day ceremonies to the trade center site was the first attempt to seize the moment. But coming after so many other, larger, memorial services, it won little notice.

Organizers adopted most of the old Mother Jones dictum of “Mourn for the dead, fight for the living” [Jones actually said, “Fight like hell”] as their slogan for the event, the words wrapped around an image of the twin towers in their logo.

“I hope the president of the United States hears us,” shouted City Central Labor Council leader Brian McLaughlin from a stage crowded with suited union officials. “The labor movement’s focus on Workers Memorial Day is the fight against workplace accidents, a fight that can be won as we win the battle against terrorism.”

But the closest thing to fighting words that Sweeney, McLaughlin, and other speakers offered were calls on Congress to reverse the Bush administration’s position against enforcing tough workplace standards on ergonomics for white-collar office workers.

Speakers pounded familiar, if still critical, themes: some 6000 workers killed annually in workplace accidents; another 50,000 to 60,000 dead from occupational diseases; nearly 6 million injured.

The strained effort to link that theme with honoring the trade center victims was clear throughout the day. In a move that left many labor activists scratching their heads, union officials decided to start the day at the New York Stock Exchange, where McLaughlin and leaders of the firefighters unions, as guests of stock exchange president Richard Grasso, were allowed to ring the opening bell. McLaughlin later explained that Grasso was going to help labor leaders with post-Enron initiatives aimed at protecting pension investments.

Sweeney and other labor leaders have been eloquent in condemning Enron as a symbol of capitalism run rampant. But labor now has its own looming Enron-style scandal. The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek have exposed a cynical arrangement forged between leaders of more than a dozen of the nation’s largest unions with the directors of Global Crossing, the telecommunications firm that crashed last year, sending the fortunes of many union benefit funds plummeting. In a complex financial deal, Global Crossing leaders let union bigs buy personal stakes in the company at bargain prices before the company’s shares rocketed with the news of its planned fiber-optic cables. It was a small taste of the kind of pre-initial public offering sales that made fortunes on Wall Street before the stock market went bust. In another Enron-style tactic, the labor leaders were even allowed to trade in their personal shares before the bottom fell out on Global Crossing’s stock, a privilege not accorded the unions’ funds. Those dealings are now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in Washington.

Asked about the Global Crossing scandal, McLaughlin said he knew little about it and quickly changed the subject to labor’s pending battle at the City Council to pass new living-wage legislation.

New York was the first city in the country to introduce the idea of living wages, a bill sponsored by former city councilmember Sal Albanese in 1996, backed by a citywide coalition of activist churches. The new bill, which so far has won 44 sponsors including Speaker Gifford Miller, who received key backing from organized labor in his bid to win the speakership, would go much further. The measure would boost minimum wages for an estimated 75,000 workers from the current state and federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour to $8.10, plus health benefits for all those employed by firms receiving city contracts, leases, or tax breaks.

The Bloomberg administration, backed by business leaders, has labeled the effort a “noble” but wrongheaded policy initiative that is too costly for a city struggling with the post-9-11 economy. City Comptroller William Thompson, another beneficiary of labor support, has endorsed it. “We’re pretty hopeful on this one,” said McLaughlin outside Trinity Church.

At the rally at ground zero, AFL-CIO chief Sweeney called for a minute of silence at noon. Heads bowed, and after a pause, the bagpipes inflated again, launching into one more rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Earlier in the day, rally organizers had walked up and down Broadway, darting in and out of shops and delis, passing out flyers asking everyone to join the minute of silence. But the effort brought little silence. A block away, Broadway’s buzz was clearly audible at the memorial rally, a lunch crowd rushing through the streets, oblivious to the ceremony nearby.

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