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TRULY HONORING THE VICTIMS OF SEPTEMBER 11

By Dick Meister

The thousands of office and professional workers who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks, the hundreds of firefighters, policemen and medical workers who died trying to rescue them, the pilots and flight attendants and their passengers who were killed -- all naturally deserve our honor, their families our sympathy and financial aid.

But neither should we overlook the janitors, window cleaners, dishwashers, busboys, security guards, elevator starters and other low-wage service employees who died in the attacks and the thousands who now face severe economic hardship.

Many who worked in the World Trade Center and nearby, living from paycheck-to-paycheck, are unemployed, with few prospects of work in the foreseeable future and no savings to help them and their families manage in the meantime. Many have the added burden of being illegal immigrants who fear that seeking government aid will subject them to deportation. Some aren't even aware of what help may be available.

Don't forget, either, the many thousands of others being laid off from jobs in the aviation industry, the many now-jobless hotel and restaurant workers across the country, and the many others who were employed in the wide variety of industries hit hard by the economic slowdown that's followed the attacks. They also are in serious financial need.

The numbers are staggering. Total layoffs in the airline and related industries alone are likely to reach 500,000 -- or more. In hotels and restaurants, the total may very well be even higher, maybe twice that.

Some of those laid off are under union contracts that promise severance pay and continuation of employer-paid health insurance and other benefits. But those supposed guarantees are simply not being honored by some companies that plead they are on the verge of bankruptcy or going out of business.

Congress and President Bush moved swiftly to provide relief for the airlines that have taken the hardest economic hits. But nothing in the $15 billion relief package was earmarked for aiding laid-off workers. The measure didn't even require trimming the obscene seven-figure salaries of airline executives.

Ignoring the needy workers was an "unconscionable, divisive and economically irresponsible omission," as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney protested.

Bush, under pressure from organized labor and its Democratic Party allies and despite counter-pressure from his fellow Republicans, has since proposed granting expanded unemployment and health insurance coverage to some laid-off workers in the airline industry and others, as well as tax cuts for lower income workers generally.

But as Sweeney and the Democrats note, the President's proposals are not nearly enough to meet the need. Unemployment and health insurance coverage must be expanded far beyond what Bush has proposed and tax cuts for workers must go much deeper.

The AFL-CIO is putting its considerable political clout behind Democratic-sponsored legislation that would grant laid-off workers at least double the maximum 26 weeks of unemployment payments the government usually provides. The bills also would give laid-off aviation workers at least a year of federally-financed health insurance, training if they needed it to prepare for other jobs, and grants to help pay the relocation costs of those who'd have to move in order to take available jobs.

Those are but stop-gap measures. The AFL-CIO also is developing a long-range proposal for putting the badly lagging U.S. economy back on track.

Airline workers themselves have proposed through their unions a series of measures that would greatly enhance airline safety.

In the meantime, unions in all fields have been collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars nationwide for relief funds allocated to distressed workers and their families.

Organized labor certainly has the right to a big voice in post-attack planning. Members of more than a dozen white collar and blue collar unions died in the attacks, more than 300 members of the Firefighters Union alone.

Thousands of union volunteers from New York and several other states, joined firefighters and policemen in rescue operations. Among them were construction workers who belonged to the unions whose members helped build the World Trade Center. Teamster Union volunteers who trucked in food, communications equipment and other needed supplies. Psychologist members of the Teachers Union who helped victims' families and others cope with swirling emotions. Members of dozens of other unions who fanned out across New York City and Washington, D.C., soliciting relief funds and collecting food and clothing for surviving victims. The union response was overwhelming.

It was important, too, that AFL-CIO President Sweeney cautioned his 13 million members -- and everyone else -- to "remember that this was an act of terrorists, not an Arab attack, and reject anti-Arab retaliation or discrimination."

But Sweeney's most important task, the primary task of organized labor, remains strengthening the economic and social position of the American worker. That is the only way to truly meet the needs of the many workers who've suffered from terrorism, the only way to truly meet the needs of us all.

Copyright Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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