Labor mourns 9/11 dead, fights for the living

NEW YORK — The city’s labor movement gathered near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, Sept. 8, in a combined Sept. 11, 2001, commemoration, Labor Day tribute and call for federal legislation to ensure health care for those suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.

The rally stage stood just a few hundred feet from the World Trade Center site, with the black-shrouded Deutsche Bank building in the background. Just two weeks ago, two firefighters were killed and other workers were injured after responding to a fire in the building, which was being demolished floor-by-floor due to damage in the Sept. 11 attacks six years ago. The latest incident was a tragic reminder of the continuing dangers at the site and the ongoing problems of managing the cleanup and rebuilding of the area.

Two days before the rally, plans were revealed for the remaining buildings in the rebuilding of the WTC complex, with construction to begin in January. Butconcerns persist about the ongoing health risk in the area.

The New York City Central Labor Council called the rally, along with the New York State AFL-CIO and New York Building and Construction Trades Council, in place of the traditional annual Labor Day parade held in the city since 1882.

Labor Council President Gary LaBarbera, who is also president of Teamsters Local 282, reminded the crowd that “Labor Day is more than a parade; more than a barbecue; more than a picnic. Labor Day began as a rally,” and continues to signify the fight for just working conditions and economic rights.

A major theme this Labor Day was the struggle for health care for the thousands affected by the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath. Fires that burned for months at Ground Zero and the toxic dust that settled everywhere affected local residents, first responders and other workers in the area.

In addition, hundreds of volunteers, many of them union members — iron workers, operating engineers, construction workers, first responders and others — flocked to the site from around the country to help with the rescue and recovery operation in the hours, days and weeks following 9/11.

Most of those who worked on or around the massive pile of debris and ash did so without respirators, in part because Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bush environmental chief Christine Todd Whitman gave an all-clear on the air quality in the area. Now thousands of workers and residents are suffering from ailments resulting from that exposure.

Dr. Robin Herbert of Mount Sinai Hospital, who directs the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, told the rally about the ongoing health problems experienced by these workers. “Four out of 10 of those treated have one or more lung problems such as asthma,” she said. “One in 10 have back problems or other musculoskeletal problems.” The monitoring program, which includes several medical centers in the New York area, performed examinations on 9,500 World Trade Center responders between July 2002 and April 2004.

Also among the speakers, New York’s Sen. Hillary Clinton vowed not to forget those who “launched and carried out the greatest rescue mission in history.” She declared, “We are going to rescue the rescuers.”

Congress did not pass federal funding for treatment of WTC-related medical treatment and tracking until December 2005, more than four years after the tragedy.

Every speaker at the rally hailed the new 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, introduced three days after the rally. The bill would guarantee ongoing funding for the treatment of all those across the country suffering from 9/11-related ailments, and would provide compensation to those who lost their jobs due to such illnesses. The bill would also reopen the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and make it available to those suffering from rescue and cleanup work at the WTC.

New York Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler and Republican Rep. Vito Fossella introduced the bill. Fossella, the only Republican in the city’s congressional delegation, portrays himself as a “fiscal conservative” and has voted against extending funding for Katrina relief. While he has been vocal in support of ongoing protection for WTC victims, Fossella is also a big supporter of Bush’s Iraq war policies.

Rally speakers linked the war and the lack of action to support the heroes of 9/11 at home. Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council, pointed out that it would cost $256 million per year for the health needs of 9/11 victims. “That’s one day in Iraq,” she noted, referring to the cost of the ongoing U.S. occupation. “Why can’t we find one day for 9/11 victims?” she asked.

Other speakers, including Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Ed Malloy, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, and New York State AFL-CIO President Dennis Hughes, noted that workers built this country, championed economic and social justice and have always made sacrifices for their neighbors and families.