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Union Heroes Made a Difference on 9/11

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Image: James ParksAs the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack approaches, the union movement remembers those who lost their lives, those who risked their lives to get others to safety and those who took part in the cleanup and rebuilding efforts that followed.

On the AFL-CIO website here, you can find a video we produced after the attacks of union members describing their efforts. Also on the site is a message from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and links to union websites about 9/11.

A member of AFGE Local 2004, Jeffrey Matthews was employed as a federal police officer with the Defense Protective Service (now called the U.S. Pentagon Police) on 9/11. His and other AFGE members’ stories are featured here. He says when he saw the TV broadcast of a plane flying into the World Trade Center, he jumped into his police uniform, grabbed his weapon, ran to his car and headed for the Pentagon.

While Matthews was on his way, Margaret Espinoza, a paraprofessional in a school two blocks from the World Trade Center, was already trying to get students safely out of the building. A member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), an affiliate of AFT, Espinoza remembers the dust and noise, the confusion and fear. She and a colleague, Julia Martinez, partly wheeled and partly carried two wheelchair-bound students to safety through streets choked with debris.

Across New York City, teachers, school staff and administrators helped secure safe passage home for 8,000 students without a single serious injury. You’ll find Espinoza’s story and those of other AFT members here. She  says:

They did just an awesome job, a wonderful job in the aftermath. At school, everyone was like family, and we came together in kindness and decency.

Meanwhile, as Matthews approached the Pentagon, the smoke was still billowing from the building.

There were helicopters taking the injured away. It was pure chaos.

He was assigned a location to scan the crowds and onlookers for snipers. Later he was  assigned to guard the morgue tent. He spent the next 26 hours helping the U.S. Marshals Service provide scene security and helping the FBI collect and document evidence.

Witnessing the carnage of the attack, he thought: I have stared into the face of Satan, and I still remain to fight another day.

This post originally appeared in the AFL-CIO Now Blog on September 9, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks: My first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when my colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. I saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. I am a journalist by trade, and I worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. I also have been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. My proudest career moment, though, was when I served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

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Rescued Chilean Miners Greeted As Heroes — but They’re Also Victims

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mikeelkfotoThe 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days have been treated like heroes since their rescue this week. They were invited to the country’s presidential palace for a special soccer game. A Greek mining executive offered to pay for them to take an all-expense paid trip to Greece to just relax for a few weeks on Greek beaches. Many other companies have made huge donations to their families.

They are being viewed as heroes, but some disagree with this characterization.

“The miners are not ‘heroes,’ as they have been called around the world for surviving underground for over two months,” NĂ©stor Jorquera, president of the Chilean mineworkers union, CONFEMIN, told the Inter Press Service. “They are victims.” Many in the international labor movement have complained that news accounts have ignored the poor treatment of workers by the mining company, which intially refused to pay their wages after the miners were trapped underground on Aug. 5.

San Esteban, the company that operates the mine, claimed they had no money to pay the workers who were trapped under the mine. In fact, the company was apparently so broke that it couldn’t even pay the costs of the recovery. The government of Chile was forced to pay for a rescue that some say could cost anywhere between $10- $20 million.

As a result, the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, vowed to make major changes to the way workers are treated in Chile. “Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose Mine, and in many other places in our country,” he said.

It’s important to note that working conditions in Chile are notoriously unsafe. There were more than 191,000 workplace accidents, including 443 deaths, in a country with only a population of 17 million people in 2009, an astronomical rate for such a small country.

President Pinera set up a commission in August to write a report on workplace safety, which is due to be delivered on Nov. 22. The president also announced the creation of a new mining agency to more strictly enforce mining safety laws and increase funding for safety programs.

But Jorquera, president of CONFEMIN, says this is not enough. He called for Chile to agree to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines, like most industrialized countries around the world have done.

Whether or not Chile signs on to that convention will make clear how serious the country’s leaders are about reforming mine safety laws. It won’t be much of a surprise if the media, which often neglects workplace safety issues, quickly moves on after the rescue and ignores mining safety issues in Chile and elsewhere. But let’s hope Pinera, and the rest of Chile’s leaders in government, act now to ensure we never have to watch another harrowing subterranean story like this unfold.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). Currently, he works at the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he has worked as a staffer on the Obama-Biden Campaign and conducted research on worker owned cooperatives at the Instituto Marques de Salamanca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When Mike is not reading twenty blogs at a time, he enjoys jazz, golden retrievers, and playing horseshoes.

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