By Dick Meister
You know those public employees who are under seemingly constant attack? Who are being blamed for all sorts of governmental problems, financial and otherwise? Well, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is a good time to make clear how very important to the nation those unfairly maligned public employees have been for a long, long time.
I should think it would be very hard to argue against the pay and pensions negotiated by firefighters and police, for instance, given their often heroic and usually helpful acts in behalf of the people they serve.
Yes, they make demands for pay and benefit increases and better working conditions– and they should. Just as they should be able to bargain collectively through their unions to try to realize their demands. That’s called workplace democracy, and it should be their absolute right.
But anti-labor political leaders are looking for someone else to blame for the poor state of the economy that’s at least in part due to their own ineptness. And who do they blame? Public employees, who are characterized as greedy, overpaid and underworked members of much too economically and politically powerful unions. The employees are the cause of it all. Certainly it’s not the failed leadership and poor bargaining skills of the political leaders that’s at fault. Or their refusal to adequately tax the wealthy. Of course not.
We should know better. And the anniversary of the 911 attacks should remind us of the essential and sometimes courageous work done by the public employees who are so frequently used as political scapegoats. Don’t blame us, say too many politicians. Blame the firefighters, police, teachers and others who do so much of the actual work of government.
Consider what public employees did after that horrific day of September 11, 2001 in New York City when a hijacked plane crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. More than 135,000 of the truly heroic firefighters, police and others who rushed to the crash scene were injured, some quite seriously. They rescued as many victims as they could find and cleared as much of the debris as they could at Ground Zero. Some had rushed to the scene from as far away as California and Oregon.
They were exposed to an extremely toxic mix of chemicals, jet fuel, asbestos, lead, glass fragments and other debris that caused a wide range of respiratory, intestinal and mental health problems, including lung diseases, rare cancers and other ailments.
An AFL-CIO report at the time focused on Vito Friscia, a Brooklyn homicide detective who was only a block away when the second of the Twin Towers fell. He rushed to the site through a dense cloud of toxins to seek – and to rescue – survivors. Friscia spent a week helping with the rescue and cleanup efforts, coming away with chronic sinus problems, shortness of breath and other lasting ailments.
“But I’m no hero,” Friscia insisted. “I was just doing my job.” Many others said pretty much the same thing – that they were just doing their jobs as police officers, firefighters or as other public service employees. Thousands of them are still suffering from their exposure at Ground Zero. Some are permanently disabled.
As one of those treating them noted, “Our patients are sick, and they will need ongoing care for the rest of their lives.”
More than 10,000 of those injured won settlements from New York and its contractors after filing lawsuits against the city. But most of the settlements were far short of providing adequate compensation to the injured, and came long after their injuries.
Sufficient federal aid has been a long time coming, in large part because of Republican opposition to the cost. It took nine years for Congress to finally pass an aid bill over the strong opposition of GOP House members. The measure, signed by President Obama just last January, will provide $7.4 billion in aid over the next 10 years. In a compromise that satisfied the GOP, it will be financed by a fee on foreign companies awarded procurement contracts from the federal government.
What we need now is a bill designating September 11, not only as a day to recall the horrors of 9/11 and its great impact on our lives, but also as a day to express our gratitude to the public employees who risked their lives to help victims of the terrorist attack and whose day-to-day work benefits us all in so many important ways.
Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.