Seeing is Believing: Up Close with the 9–11 Responders
While September 11, 2001, was a dark day for America, it also provided a shining example of what public employees — and their unions — offer our nation every day.
We all have our own memories of that morning — where we were and what we were doing when we learned that the World Trade Center was burning and the Pentagon had been hit. I was on the second floor of an office building two blocks from the White House, working for the union that represents professional firefighters and paramedics in the United States and Canada.
Just minutes later, I was in the office of the General President of that union, where he discussed with his senior staff how they could and would respond to the needs of its members and the communities they served. I was with him as he saw the towers fall and hundreds of his dues-paying members, along with thousands of their fellow citizens, perish. The moment was rich with history as the union moved swiftly into action.
Within hours we had rapid-response teams on the way to New York City and Arlington. Within days we had health-and-safety experts and administrative staff in the city providing critical support to the thousands of firefighters working on recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
Within weeks we had a newly created fund smoothly handling the unprecedented outpouring of generosity from people across the nation and beyond — with all administrative costs borne by the union to make sure that every donated penny went to a family that had lost someone on that day. And within months, with allies in Congress and the White House in support, we helped pass a series of bipartisan legislative initiatives, what we called a “living memorial,” that boosted public safety and retooled homeland security in the new Age of Terror.
Today, 16 years after those dark hours, when I hear various pundits and politicians rail against unions like the one I worked for, I remember my experiences in the aftermath of September 11. I also remember working for several years with local leaders in small towns and cities across our great country as they fought to keep fire stations open, provide emergency medical care where none existed and defend their rights on the job.
Every once in a while I would get a question from a classmate from West Point or someone who knew about my service in the Army, “How did a guy like you end up working for a union?” My answer was pretty simple: “They taught me everything I needed to know about unions when I was a plebe.”
I answered their puzzled looks by quoting a few of the principles of leadership upperclassmen drilled into my head long ago. Among these were, “Make sound and timely decisions,” “Set the example,” “Keep your soldiers informed” and “Train your unit as a team.” Exactly what workers deserve from management — and exactly what unions are formed to promote.
Public-sector unions represent public servants. These organizations — imperfect as any human institution — are forged in the belief that workers who are committed to their jobs have a collective right to speak out publicly and defend their rights. To “recognize” a union is to recognize that the men and women who get up each day to teach our children, police our streets and provide government services to the rest of us contribute measurably to our society.
On September 11, 2001, the firefighters of New York City answered the call — and so did their union. I was there and I saw it with my own eyes. From my point of view, the patriotism of their actions on that day alone should keep them off the target list of any zealot looking to score quick political points.