After 9/11, the Unions Didn’t Have a Tea Party

After 9/11, the Unions Didn’t Have a Tea Party

Getty Images

Two days after September 11, 2001, I headed downtown from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to see if I could help out at Ground Zero. Here’s who I didn’t see marching south toward the human carnage and the hideous mountain of gnarled steel and masonry that was once the World Trade Center: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, or any Tea Partiers-to-be in Uncle Sam outfits or three-cornered hats.

Here’s who I did see: Ordinary Americans (40,000 volunteers were said to be at the Javits Convention Center waiting to lend a hand) and hardhats—lots of hardhats.

In a column shortly after that day, I wrote:

“And there were the unions. Not just the dust-covered firefighters and phalanxes of cops but also Ironworkers, Pipefitters, Carpenters, Operating Engineers, Teamsters, and so many more. Hundreds of hardhats had abandoned work on projects uptown to lend a work-gloved hand.

“… On this day, it was hard not to thank the heavens for these brotherhoods of workers. To watch a crane operator swing a massive cross of girders gently to the ground and then see it swiftly attacked by Ironworkers with torches -- an almost silent ballet of determination -- was to suddenly appreciate why unions are called brotherhoods. It was also to witness one of Labor's finest hours.”

These days, Big Government bashers who pull the strings of the GOP presidential marionettes (Ron Paul excluded) have it out for Big Labor, too. And they’ve got a point. Outrageous wages and pension benefits almost killed the American auto industry (that and the ineptitude of multimillion-dollar corporate managers). Union demands over the decades have driven millions of other manufacturing jobs overseas and helped contribute to our current painful level of unemployment. And the often overly generous pensions of public union workers are strangling states across the land. In short, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the labor movement has damaged American competitiveness and contributed to the decline of the country.

And the unions have paid a price: Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership in 2010 was 11.9 percent of “wage and salary workers” – down from 12.3 percent in 2009. That represents a decline of 612,000, to 14.7 million card-carrying workers. “In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available,” the BLS said, “…there were 17.7 million union workers.” More tellingly, only 6.9 percent of private-sector workers were unionized.

But have the unions been any greedier than corporate executives or more rapacious than Wall Street and the too-big-to-fail banks? For too many years, the American Way has been to grab yours -- the commonweal be dammed. But if America is to move forward and pull itself out of the fiscal hole it’s in, attitudes must change.

On Labor Day, Teamsters chief James Hoffa kicked a hornet’s nest when he went after the Tea Party at a rally in Michigan that preceded a speech by President Obama.

In part, Hoffa said: “We gotta keep an eye on the battle that we face, a war on workers. You see it everywhere: It is in the Tea Party… The one thing about working people is we like a good fight. And you know what, they’ve got a war with us and there is only going to be one winner… Let’s take these sons of bitches out and give America back to America….”

Fighting words from a man whose father was pardoned by Richard Nixon and whose union endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988. And by all accounts, Hoffa is not backing down.

Sure, his bravado was red meat for the rank-and-file—and a red flag waved at all those outraged Tea Partiers in the Red States. But what America doesn’t need now is more demonizing and division from either side of the political spectrum.

A recent story in The Wall Street Journal on the resilience of the German economy pointed to a “flexibility rooted in a system in which businesses and employees frequently agree to changes in wages and the workweek…to respond to an unexpected drop in demand.” Michael Heise, the chief economist at German insurer Allianz, told the Journal that such flexibility “has lessened the fear in the corporate sector of aggressive wage demands that could punish them if they have too much labor.” In other words, it’s helped keep people working.

Simply, there seems to be a recognition in Germany at least at some level that everyone is in the same boat and needs to pull the oars in the same direction for the good of the country, the economy, and each other.

America had that sort of feeling immediately after 9/11 when in his most sterling and stirring moment as president, George W. Bush stood on a mound of rubble with his arm around a firefighter and talked through a bullhorn to a crowd of workers at Ground Zero.

As we mark the end of a torturous decade and wonder how we will get the country back on its feet and everyday Americans back to work, we should recall that state of mind in that place in time. And those angry dudes in the Revolutionary War costumes might also want to remember that when George Bush said, “I hear you. The rest of the world hears you,” most of those in the throng he was talking to had union cards in their pockets.