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The victims share a common trait: Most of them were workers

Sunday, October 07, 2001

What defines nearly all of the 6,000 people killed in the attack on America is not their nationality, it is that they were workers.

Americans, Britons, Canadians and all the others from so many lands who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center were on the job when they were killed. So were the people in the Pentagon. So were most of those who rode the targeted jets, from the pilots to the flight attendants to the people carrying laptops and briefcases from city to city.

Workers all.

Some jobs are different, though. Some jobs had people going into the buildings that others fled, had people ascending the stairways past others hurrying down for their lives. And so the firefighters and police of New York City have been rightly celebrated.

They were unionized, government workers, in case anyone hadn't noticed. Charlie McCollester, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations, hopes that fact sinks into the American consciousness.

"There should be a respect for the training and the standards they apply to jobs," said McCollester, 58, a machinist-turned-college-professor.

At least 627 victims of the attack on our country were union members, and though it's frightening to consider that they represent roughly a 10th of the slaughter, 627 is not a number that can be preceded by the word "only."

Three hundred-fifty were firefighters. Sixty-three were police officers. Sixty-two were janitors and maintenance workers. Fifty-two were in the building trades. Forty-seven were restaurant workers. Twenty-five were flight attendants. The remaining 28 were pilots, machinists, teachers, government workers and communications workers.

"A high percentage of the union folks were killed running toward the tragedy, not running out of the buildings," said McCollester, who teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and lives on Mount Washington. "The union folks represent a certain way of approaching work and life which was illustrated here."

That exemplary dedication didn't end on the morning of Sept. 11. In what we optimistically called the rescue effort, union men and women were again in the forefront. Hundreds of iron workers volunteered to cut the steel away. Hundreds more building trades workers stepped forward to clear the destruction site. Teamsters brought relief supplies. Pennsylvania mine workers offered early on to send a mine rescue team, but were not called.

The unions had the organizational ability and technical know-how to bring needed skills to the massive job while most of the rest of us were still searching for ways to do something to help.

Most folks who worked high in the World Trade Center would not side with McCollester in most economic debates. The opinion of Wall Street, by and large, is loudly against government regulation and for privatization.

"Regulations can be stupid, but sometimes they can be absolutely essential," McCollester said. "Unions can be difficult to deal with, but sometimes they provide a very real service in terms of training and organization."

The heroism on Sept. 11 was by no means the exclusive property of unionized workers, blue-collar workers or government workers. One has to think only of the passengers who fought back against the hijackers on Flight 93, which crashed in Somerset County. There a group of business flyers, strangers thrown together by circumstance, risked all for their country -- and succeeded in taking that missile out of the terrorists' hands. We'll never know how many lives they saved in losing their own.

Teamwork, selflessness and heroism were everywhere that morning. Any negative stereotypes that existed about any part of the American workforce died on Sept. 11, too. May they rest in peace.

Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is boneill@post-gazette.com emailaddress

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