On Labor Day, E.J. Dionne published a lovely column entitled “The Invisible Worker.” He argued that the worker as an icon is essentially disappearing from our culture, and lamented that we should feel ashamed about “our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day.”
The coming 10th anniversary of 9/11 gives new meaning to those words, and gives us an occasion to rethink that cool indifference. After all, while 9/11 has taken on all sorts of meanings in our culture, there’s a labor angle, too. Dozens upon dozens of workers responded to the disaster with real grit and heroism, undertaking the grueling task of cleaning up the mess, digging through the rubble for the injured and the dead, sometimes searching for their own colleagues and friends, for days and days on end, under unspeakably stressful and wrenching conditions.
AFSCME has produced a video remembrance of the trials workers endured that day at Ground Zero. It isn’t this blog’s usual fare, but the video is quite well done, and it captures something iconic about 9/11 that’s been mostly forgotten:
“We were digging by hand,” recalls Patrick Bahnken, an emergency medical technician with D.C. 37, whose headquarters was right across the street. “You’re talking 200 plus story buildings, and we’re digging it out by hand. And I knew that a large number of people that I’d be carrying out, or looking for, or trying to help, were people that I knew.”
According to AFSCME, some 343 firefighters and 60 police officers died as a result of 9/11, and many thousands more remain sick from respiratory ailments.
At a time when the union rights of public employees and their relationship to municipal governments around the country are being widely debated, I hope folks will make a bit of space in their 9/11 remembrances for the “individual workers” who rose to the call of duty on that awful day.