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9/11 And The War On Workers


Now that we have a moment to come down from the Bush administration’s pre-election-patriotic-war-mongering-fest, also known as the fifth anniversary of 9/11, lets take a moment to look at a subject virtually ignored: the Bush administration’s use of 9/11 to attack workers. As James Parks notes in an excellent piece in the AFL-CIO’s blog, More than 600 union members were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and union members responded with an outpouring of funds and volunteered thousands of hours to help treat the injured and rescue and recover the victims.

But the tragedy of 9/11 has not ended for thousands of union members and others who worked to clean up the wreckage of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan. A study released last week by the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York confirmed what most of these workers have known for years: the dust that they inhaled for days, weeks and months while working on "the pile" has caused serious, progressive lung disease among 70 percent of those who have been tested. Several have died and experts fear that we will be seeing long term effects, like cancer, for decades. A separate study showed that firefighters and emergency medical technicians who worked at Ground Zero had lost the equivalent of 12 years – in the year following the attack—putting them at risk for chronic lung problems later in life.

Much of the blame is rightfully targeted at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for giving workers (and all New Yorkers) false assurances that that air at Ground Zero was safe, despite the fact that they were inhaling the smoke and dust from the pulverized remains of a toxic burning brew of caustic concrete dust, asbestos, PCBs, jet fuel, and plastics, lead, chromium, mercury, vinyl chloride, benzene, human bodies and thousands of other toxic substances. The pulverized concrete alone has been characterized as so alkaline it’s like inhaling lye.

The problems at Ground Zero were made worse by the fact that OSHA remained in "technical assistance" mode during the entire 9-month clean-up, rather than enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Act which gives workers to the right to a safe workplace — even during emergencies.  And the lessons of Ground Zero have clearly not been learned. OSHA also declined to enforce the law after Katrina. In fact, the agency only recently began citing employers in Mississippi, and has still has not resumed enforcement in the hurricane ravaged part of Louisiana.

But 9/11 did more than take a toll on workers’ health and lives. Just as the Bush administration politicized 9/11 to win legislative victories and elections, they also used the tragedy of 9/11 to bust unions.

When the Bush administration adopted the Democratic proposal to establish a Department of Homeland Security, the Republicans’ bill demolished long-standing civil service and collective bargaining rights. Labor-friendly Democrats opposed the Republican version of the bill, a stand that Republicans used in the 2002 elections to accuse Democrats of being unpatriotic.. Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a decorated and disabled Viet Nam veteran, was defeated in that election by an opponent who ran commercials with photos of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Cleland, charging Cleland with being unpatriotic and opposing homeland security.

In 2003, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice declared that certain federal employees are not allowed to join unions for national security and "flexibility" reasons. Apparently taking his cue from the Administration (as if he needed a cue), former Congressman Tom Delay (R-TX), in a letter he "accidentally" signed (and later disavowed) for the National Right-to-Work Foundation in 2003, declared that labor unions present “a clear and present danger to the security of the United States at home and the safety of our armed forces overseas.” He also accused unions, especially the Firefighters – of exploiting Sept. 11, 2001, for a "shameful post-9/11 power grab."

Union leaders (and members) were not amused:

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told DeLay in a letter, “Never in my long career have I seen anything as despicable as this slanderous letter…Union members raced into collapsing and burning buildings to save lives, they came to their jobs at the hospitals to care for the wounded…cleaned up the site, recovered the bodies and brought order to the great city of New York.”

IAFF President Harold Schaitberger also wrote DeLay, asking: “How dare you question the patriotism of the nation’s firefighters and their elected union leaders—all of whom have crawled down a burning hallway, faced uncontrolled flames and risked their lives countless of times for the citizens of our great nation. Have you forgotten so soon? On Sept. 11, 2001, my proud union lost 343 firefighters at Ground Zero.”

Meanwhile, the newly created Transpotration Security Administration, later absorbed into Homeland Security, denied screeners access to collective bargaining (although they were still allowed to join unions). The reason? They needed "a more nimble workforce" in order to respond effectively to terrorism. And Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense demanded unprecedented authority to hire, fire and promote its 746,000 civilian workers. Federal courts have blocked many of the new Homeland Security rules along with a similar set of new workplace rules—dubbed the National Security Personnel System—for some 700,000 Defense Department workers.

According to a 2003 report by Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, a conservative think tank.

With unions would come new workplace rules that could make it harder for managers to respond to sudden threats. The TSA likes to point to its rapid mobilization of screeners around New Year’s Day, when intelligence suggested terrorists were planning to sneak shoe-bombs aboard U.S. jetliners. "You want to have that level of flexibility. And that’s going to be difficult to preserve if the union takes hold," Poole said…. Even if they can’t strike, union workers could use other tactics, including sick-outs and work slowdowns, to apply pressure during contract negotiations, said Charles Slepian, an aviation security expert with the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center. "We can’t start messing around with the aviation industry," Slepian said.

In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board decided that non-union workers (unlike union employees) had no right to have a witness present at a meeting where they might be disciplined or fired. Most astonishing was one of the reasons the Board used to justify this decision:

We simply observe that some employers, faced with security concerns that are an out-growth of the troubled times in which we live, may seek to question employees on a private basis for a host of legitimate reasons…

In other words, for security reasons (e.g. terrorism), employers have the right to "question employees on a private basis." Because of 9/11, non-union employees must give up their right to be accompanied by a co-worker. Apparently, al Qaeda cells were lurking in American workplaces and the NLRB fears that critical national security information will be transmitted from the friends of disgruntled employees directly to Osama bin Laden.

9/11 was even used to attack government employees’ paychecks. In Fiscal Year 2004 and every year thereafter, Bush proposed that civilian federal employees receive only a 2% raise, as opposed to the 4.1% that the President had proposed for the military. The reason?

In a letter to congressional leaders, Bush said the larger increase "would threaten our efforts against terrorism or force deep cuts in discretionary spending or federal employment to stay within budget."

A writer fo rthe American Prospect’s blog Tapped asked:

Tell us, Mr. President, do massive tax cuts for the wealthy, which balloon federal deficits and starve the government of needed funds, also threaten our efforts against terrorism? By your logic, yes.

(Congress rejected the President’s attempted discrimination against civilian government workers that year, as well as in subsequent years when Bush again attempted to cut the raises of civilian employees.)

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security showed how sensitive it is to workers’ issues last year when one of its divisions, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, staged a sting against undocumented immigrants in North Carolina by posing as OSHA trainers. The sting caused an uproar in the blogosphere, unions, the public health community, and the New York Times. Even OSHA, which had been attempting to encourage immigrant workers to use their health and safety rights was furious and DHS was finally forced to back down and promise never to impersonate OSHA officials again.

To paraphrase British author Samuel Johnson, patriotism Is clearly the last refuge of scoundrels — and union busters.

And that, my friends, is yet another collection of little known historical tidbits from your friendly Bush administration.

 Now I gotta go. I’ve got some election returns and voting "irregularities" to obsess about.

Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space

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