On 9/11, I remember 32BJ

Last year on 9/11 I wrote this blog, I have updated it and wanted to share it again.  On 9/11 I remember and commemorate my friends at 32BJ.  Peace.

17 years ago, I rose from the McPherson Square Metro to walk the 3 blocks to my office at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) office at 1313 L Street NW, Washington, D.C.  It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, no humidity and the air and sky were crisp and clear.  There was an announcement in the subway, which was garbled like all the announcements in the Metro.  All I heard was “blah, blah, blah…Pentagon”.  As I walked I realized there was an unusual amount of horns honking, traffic congestion and people streaming out of office buildings.

The city was in a panic, and the subway was now closed.  When I got to my building, a colleague told me the city was evacuating.  She offered me a ride home and we sat in traffic for an hour traveling only a few blocks.  Because she was trying desperately try to get home to her family in Maryland, I got out and walked home to Capitol Hill.   I am certain I got home before she did.

A few day later, I was sent to New York to assist SEIU 32BJ in navigating the federal, state and local government bureaucracy.  32BJ is the largest building services local union with membership of cleaners, property maintenance workers, doormen, security officers, building engineers, school and food service workers, and window cleaners.  24 union members died on 9/11. “Roko Camaj spent nearly half of his life suspended from ropes over 1,300 feet above ground working outside of the original World Trade Center. Born in the small Balkan country of Montenegro, he immigrated to the United States in 1969″.  Another window washer was instrumental in saving lives, “A man standing next to Jan Demczur reached into the window washer’s bucket and seized the Squeegee handle. It took them 90 minutes from the moment the elevator cab had halted in the shaft, but they reached safety only minutes before the tower collapsed—the second tower to do so. The tool that saved their lives, the Squeegee handle”  The handle is now part of the Smithsonian exhibit at National Museum of American History.

Why on earth was I being sent to New York, what could I possibly do to help?  I was a Legislative Advocate (Lobbyist).  But my experience representing public employees and understanding the unemployment compensation system and other government programs would come in handy.

In the mist of such tragedy, the benefits of union membership were paramount to the 1200 plus workers who lost their livelihood.  The buildings were gone and so were their jobs. 

32BJ offices were only a few blocks away from the World Trade Center.  Those blocks were filled with pages and pictures, “have you seen this person”.  I am haunted by those pages fluttering in the wind.

Yet I was incredibly proud and privileged to have met and helped union members in the days following 9/11.  I was concerned that some of the janitors might be undocumented, but the World Trade Center was the premiere building in New York City.  The least senior janitor had worked in the building over 10 years.  They weren’t undocumented, but there were major language barriers to overcome.

I remember one woman who had been a school teacher in Eastern Europe, because her English was not very good, she worked as a cleaner.  She had been cleaning the same floor of the World Trade Center over 15 years.  She was my age, single, while educated but worked as a janitor.  Her English was still not very good after years of being a U.S. citizen, because as a cleaner she didn’t converse with co-workers every day, she worked alone.  There by the grace of being born in the U.S. I really identified with her.  She was along, no family and her co-workers spoke many different languages.  But her union family took care of her.

The union officers and staff worked to get all the members onto unemployment as quickly as possible.  The NYC phone system had collapsed, because of the thousands of people who lost their jobs that day.  Also the unemployment system only offered translations services in Spanish and some Chinese.  32BJ workers were from all over the world, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia.  We helped them fill out paper applications giving each member personal assistance.

Each day a union meeting was held on the first floor of the union building.  32BJ leadership told all the displaced workers and their families the union was going to get everyone back to work.  In addition, the union extended health insurance and granted a supplement $100 unemployment benefit from the trust funds.  At those meetings workers cried and hugged each other, proud to be union members and treated as an extended family.  The union was able to negotiate an early retirement program so that older workers could retire and the 1200 displaced World Trade Center workers move to other buildings.  The union got everyone back to work in 6 months, without any government assistance.

I was incredibly privileged to attend those meetings and see firsthand the joy expressed by workers who had experienced such loss and tragedy.  I feel guilty that week was one of the best of my career.

Each anniversary of 9/11, I remember the wonderful 32BJ members, staff and officers.  Why I am proud to have been a union member, and now retiree.  

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