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United We Stand? The Unequal Costs of Mobilization

by Rachel Buff on Nov 13, 2001

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 unify 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 in Asia, 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 rose faster than 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 rejected proposals to federalize airport security workers and give them access to collective bargaining. 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.

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