Sunday, September 11, 2005

Today is 9/11, the anniversary, a distinctly (r)epublican holiday, appropriated by the party for its own purposes in the 2002 midterm elections and then the presidential convocation.

That’s unfortunate, because it was a blow to the whole country and now only the half that doesn’t read much celebrates it, rolls it around in their hands, cherishes it as a gift from the electoral Gods.

But the scribe cried, too, that day. And like a true scribe he wrote, as usual, an article unsaleable and very much outside the acceptable cant being published at that terrible moment.

Today, as remembrance, the piece is reproduced. And it is done in the wake of what happened in New Orleans, the terrible “every man for himself” reality that took hold in what is, alas, the nonunion, tax-free, deregulated Dixie.

Re-reading the piece, it is clear the federal response to 9/11 was just as lame, and that it was the community in New York that saved the city rather than looted it.

New York came together not because the (p)resident finally came down out of Air Force One (again, a day late), but because it had a civic infrastructure nurtured since the 1920s, or even earlier, on the idea that a city is a collective concept, that everyone is tied together, and that “your tax money” is really our tax money with which, when properly administrated, we can work our way through the most horrible occurrence.

In Tragedy’s Wake, Give the Unions Their Dues

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

We purchase flags, light candles in clusters, 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 truly 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 large 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 sports 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 ideal of solidarity?

And 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?

Ours is a society that wants to pay nothing for services led by a (p)resident who thought it best to break down the pooled resources that made us states united in common cause, into pittances for un-allied consumers.

It’s tough 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 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 days, 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 un-American; 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 (p)resident wasn’t summarily firing unionized air traffic controllers (1980), leaders of commerce were devastating democratic unionism’s ranks by dismantling the manufacturing base and sending both the wages and “recuperated” capital overseas (not “our” money, but “theirs”).

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 just forced America to its knees might have targeted a factory as the ultimate symbol of national power. Instead their target, the World Trace Center, was home to many of the analysts, brokerage houses, and the very financial 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 over 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 whom heeded that call.

They did so without hesitation, placing the victims’ health and well-being over their own.

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