United We Stand?

News at Home

Ms. Buff is an assistant professor of history at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and a writer for the History News Service.

Recently we witnessed the disturbing spectacle of the heroes of Sept. 11 fighting each other in the streets of New York City. Unionized firefighters scuffled with police officers. Turning the firefighters away from the ongoing hunt for their lost brethren at the World Trade Center disaster site, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani urged the firefighters' union to cooperate with his downsizing of the search for those lost in the tragedy.

What are we to make of this recent display of division at Ground Zero? When the mayor of New York tells firefighters who are nationally celebrated as heroes to listen to his authority and go home, the message is clear. Those with power will make the hard decisions about how we will recover from Sept. 11. In making such decisions, officials such as Giuliani will purport to speak for the hard-working many.

Wartime mobilization is a time when we are called to unite in the name of patriotic duty. But the call to stand united has long been a mixed bag for working Americans. During both World Wars, for example, mobilization meant unprecedented job openings for those at home who had been barred from steady employment. African Americans, other racial minorities, and women benefited from new opportunities.

But the patriotic fervor that accompanied wartime mobilization meant that unions were pressured into"no-strike" pledges. These pledges limited the power of workers to bargain collectively. In the context of wartime patriotism, any signs of dissent were marked as anti-American.

Just as many of us today accept lines at airports and other security measures imposed since 9/11, most workers during both World Wars accepted this restriction. But after the wars ended, many war workers were pressured to leave their jobs, or to accept lower-paid, non-union work. The economic slide of minority and female war workers led eventually to the demands of these Americans for equal rights after the wars, including equal employment opportunity and equal work for equal pay.

As we mobilize for what promises to be a long war, how are we to protect the rights of workers at home? The national economy has changed since the conclusion of World War II. Instead of bringing economic expansion, protracted conflict in Vietnam brought economic disaster. As the United States became increasingly involved in an undeclared war in Southeast Asia, escalating military spending undermined financial stability at home, adding to the national debt. In the 1970s, military spending sounded a death knell for the social programs meant to end poverty in this most prosperous nation on earth.

Since Vietnam, an increasingly globalized economy has meant that many workers in the United States are neither union members nor citizens. Union membership has declined, and immigrants have filled many jobs. In the wake of Sept. 11, many of the families of undocumented workers killed at the World Trade Center struggle to learn the fates of their loved ones, who were a key part of the economy servicing this center of commerce. But, like the firefighters turned away from Ground Zero, they will have an unequal share of the limited benefits of recovery.

During the same week that the heroes of Sept. 11 clashed in downtown Manhattan, the national unemployment rate rose faster than at any time since 1982. As we mobilize for a long and expensive war, our economic stability is threatened.

Now the Bush administration, under the guise of a $100 billion economic stimulus package, is pressing billions in tax cuts that will overwhelmingly favor the corporate elite. Simultaneously, the House initially rejected proposals to federalize airport security workers and give them the right to unionize. And we are fighting a war in Afghanistan with an all-volunteer army, whose recruits are drawn from those who have the fewest social and economic alternatives.

We are urged to stand together before the world without noticing the rapid increase in inequality around us. How are we to be united politically, if we are divided economically? How are we to spend as in normal times while the suffering of American working people mounts?

As the New York City firefighters are well aware, the answer is that we have to be united, to look after each other. Only valuing all of our labor and lives equally will lead us to true unity. Recovery from the events of 9/11 should mean economic parity and political democracy, not putting money and power into the hands of the few.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Marco - 11/29/2001

Rachel Buff mentions that the Bush Administrations' stimulus package proposes tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, and implies that this is a bad thing. Investment by the wealthy create many jobs for those who are _not_ wealthy, through such means as the creation and expansion of large businesses requiring large numbers of workers to function. I would be interested in learning why she believes that providing incentives to those who play a major role in employing many Americans (and immigrants) is divisive. Does her belief rest purely on ideological grounds? If not, it would have been nice to see a bit of an economic analysis supporting her point.

Rachel Buff also seems to think that federalizing airport security workers is inherently desirable, even though in the UK for example, where they have much more experience with terrorism and anti-terrorist security efforts, privately employed security workers are preferred. Why should public employees, who are much harder to fire if they are found to be incompetent, work in jobs which holds peoples' lives at stake? Should those who guard chemical plants, nuclear facilities, or, for that matter, large office buildings, all be federal employees too? What is Rachel Buff's logic here?

In addition, I can say that it is no secret that most GIs enlist mainly for economic reasons. (Though as a veteran, I can assure you that many enlist for other reasons, including a desire for adventure, to gain certain sorts of specialized training, to prove thmeselves, out of family tradition, or due to patriotic feelings). I am surprised that Rachel Buff makes an issue of this however. Since she does, however, what is she actually proposing be done? Is she arguing that the United States should bring back the draft, so that more affluent people are forced to join up? Is she demanding pay raises for military members? Is she saying that military people should never be placed in harm's way? What exactly is Rachel Buff getting at here?

I would have liked to have seen see a bit more analysis, as long as these points were being made.