Every 9/11, I will share my memories to commemorate my friends and colleagues at 32BJ. I wrote this blog in 2017 and edit it each year as appropriate. I appreciate you reading it. In memoriam to the workers who died that day. Give us PEACE.
18 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 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 toward my office, I realized there was an unusual amount of horns honking, traffic congestion and people streaming out of office buildings.
The city was in complete 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 navigate the federal, state and local government bureaucracy in the time of our national crisis. 32BJ is the largest building services local union in New York City. The members are doormen, cleaners, property maintenance workers, security officers, building engineers, school and food service workers, and window cleaners. 24 union members died on 9/11. “Roko Camaj spent nearly half 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.” He was known to say he loved his job, “at the top of the world”. 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 1,200 plus workers who worked in the World Trade Center buildings and had 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 flyers 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 perticular eastern European woman, she had been a school teacher before she immigrated, because her English was not very good instead of being a teacher she worked as a janitor. She had been cleaning the same floor of the World Trade Center over 15 years. She was my age, single, 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 daily with co-workers, she worked alone and was invisible to the people who occupied the offices she cleaned. There by the grace of being born in the U.S. I really identified with her. She was alone, no family and her co-workers spoke many different languages. But her union family step-up and 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 a few Chinese dialects. 32BJ workers were from all over the world, but the World Trade builings were mostly Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. We helped them complete 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 “they were family”. 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 union trust funds. At those meetings workers cried and hugged each other. I was never so proud to be with union members, the union was an extended family taking care of one another, as it should be. Later the union was able to negotiate an early retirement program so that older workers could retire and the 1,200 displaced World Trade Center workers would move to other buildings. The union got everyone back to work in 6 months, without any government assistance. (U.S. Senator Hilary Clinton was no help at all.)
I was incredibly privileged to attend those meetings and see firsthand the joy expressed by workers who had experienced such loss and tragedy. I felt guilty that week, because being there was a priviledge, and that week was one of the best of my career.
Each anniversary of 9/11, I remember the wonderful 32BJ members, staff and officers. I am proud to be a union member, and now retiree.