Two days after the World Trade Center attacks, and without any notice by the press, a thousand or more people crowded onto the first-floor gallery of the AFL-CIO’s Washington, DC, headquarters to mourn organized labor’s soul-numbing casualties. The 350 missing New York firemen were all union members, as were sixty-three policemen and dozens of missing emergency workers. Fifteen unionized carpenters. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) lost almost fifty members who had been working a breakfast meeting at the top of one of the crumbled towers on September 11. Another sixty-two members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)–janitors, window washers, security guards–perished that morning as well. Perhaps as many as 800 unionized workers died in the twin towers inferno, the Pentagon attacks and the crash in Pennsylvania.
The body blow landed against labor provoked crippling pain and, among some, red-hot anger. Much of the new union leadership in place since John Sweeney took over the national federation six years ago are baby boomers whose politics were forged in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. But the prevailing mood among organized labor is not pacifist. On the same day as the AFL memorial gathering, the powerful Machinists union, whose members built, serviced and maintained the four hijacked jets, issued an incendiary statement vowing that it was “not simply justice we seek. It is vengeance, pure and complete.”
The Machinists’ saber-rattling was on labor’s extreme edge (that union also builds F-16s and F-22s). But, in general, labor’s attitude toward war mirrors the mixed views of most progressives: Some for peace, a few for all-out war and most for some sort of just response against the perpetrators of September 11, without giving a blank check to the Bush Administration.
Labor is not only grieving its losses but also bracing for a suddenly uncertain and problematic future. “Our people see all this as threatening: to us, our membership, our core industries, our core concerns,” says Bruce Colburn, midwest deputy director of the AFL-CIO. “Our people are consumed by just what all this will mean.”
It means, at the least, some readjustment of labor’s economic, organizing and political strategies. Says Andy Stern, president of the SEIU, “The political map has not been rewritten, but now you have to play with different rules and in a different context.”
“Before September 11, we had a comprehensive legislative agenda from the patients’ bill of rights, to minimum wage, to paid prescription drug plans, to immigration reform, to trade and fast-track policy,” laments Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, the country’s largest public employee union. “Now, the national agenda is all about bin Laden, terrorism, the military and defense spending. Meanwhile the economy is almost in a swan dive. Private sector or public sector–we’re getting hammered.”
Union losses climb almost hourly: one hundred thousand airline workers being laid off. A crashing tourism industry, with thousands thrown out of work in once recession-proof Las Vegas. The 300,000-member HERE girding for what may be a layoff of 30 percent of its membership. And all this with a ripple effect more like a tsunami-wave machine. Even the ASPCA is laying off workers, after the charity world was rescrambled by the collapse of the trade towers. Add to this more than a million job layoffs in the months preceding September 11 and you can understand why some union activists fear they are staring into the abyss. “The job-loss numbers we are facing could be simply staggering,” says Martin Ludlow, political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “Here in Los Angeles, we’ve got maybe a thousand people–parking-lot attendants, baggage handlers, sky caps–pushed out of work just at the airport.”