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Respect At Last: Blue-collar workers bask in a new regard

By Katia Hetter, Newsday Staff Writer

NOT SO LONG ago, Wall Street financiers and dot-com creators ruled Manhattan, while ironworkers and other construction workers were often portrayed as lazy, overpaid union members.

On Sept. 11, everything changed.

As Gotham’s white-collar residents watched helplessly, blue-collar men and women used their skills to tackle the rubble of the World Trade Center. Whether they continue to work at Ground Zero or return to other jobsites, blue-collar workers report a renewed respect for their trades.

When trucks carried firefighters, police officers, ironworkers and electricians to Ground Zero that first week, residents gathered along city streets to cheer. They honored them at vigils, brought them food and flowers and donated money to memorial funds.

Carpenter Bob Martin has felt the appreciation many times since he saw the second plane crash into Tower Two after he was evacuated from One Financial Center, where he was installing sheetrock and ceilings.

Since Sept. 11, Martin and other members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 608 have worked 12-hour days, six or seven days per week, near the disaster site, boarding up broken windows and building protective walls around damaged buildings. In the last week, Martin has worked four floors below the street, replacing ceilings at One Financial Center.

“Even we got cheers, when we were going to the subway station,” said Martin, 31, a married father of three from Dutchess County. “They were giving us respect.”

Said U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), “Some of the elite used to look down on them, but these are the guys – and women – getting the job done, doing the tough work. People are starting to realize it.”

Painter John Perez hears the same applause. The son of a painter, Perez spent time on the bucket line at Ground Zero before returning to work on Air Train construction near Kennedy Airport.

“We get courtesy as long as we have a hard hat and safety gear on,” said Perez, who works for Roselle, N.J.-based Fine Painting Co. “We built this city, so it makes me feel appreciated.”

Not since World War II has history professor Josh Freeman found such overwhelming respect for people who work with their hands. Through the 1960s, the Queens College professor said, society valued the industrial worker’s contribution to democracy.

That respect faded with the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which transferred power to the city’s financial elite, said Freeman, author of “Working Class New York,” a history of the city’s 20th-century labor movement.

With the city’s recovery “so dependent” on financial jobs and business services, blue-collar workers were considered “culturally irrelevant” to many New Yorkers, he said.

Sept. 11 changed that perception.

The current crisis “brings out our helplessness, our dependence on this group of people whom we often treated as invisible,” said Freeman. “It’s directly related to the rescue and recovery effort.”

“I’ve never been prouder to be an ironworker,” said Edward Walsh, business manager of Ironworkers Local 40, whose members still slice twisted steel beams at Ground Zero. “It should be this way all the time.”

Most of the workers pictured in newspapers and television programs carry union cards, from the firefighters and police officers to the carpenters and ironworkers.

“The union provides a level of training and skill required to do these jobs,” said Richard Weiss, the Mason Tenders District Council’s communications director, whose members do demolition, scaffolding, hazardous waste and other construction work. “It’s the reason why the Port Authority [of New York and New Jersey, which owns the Twin Towers disaster site] doesn’t go to Long Island to pick up day laborers for this work.”

Still, labor leaders wonder if the warm feelings will translate into concrete change: higher salaries for city workers or postal workers getting better protection from anthrax exposure or laid-off airline employees getting a share of the industry’s federal bailout money.

“With all of the praise in the world, it will still be hard to get the police and firefighters a raise,” said Denis Hughes, president of the state AFL-CIO. “I hope our recognition of working men and women translates into economic security for these workers. They deserve it.”

The challenge for blue-collar unions over the past decade has been to show that their members are part of the communities in which they live, said Weiss. His members raised money for charity and worked within their churches or synagogues, showing their union flag wherever they went.

It’s no longer a struggle. After Sept. 11, Weiss has seen a “newfound respect and admiration” for his 17,000 members, whom he calls the unsung heroes of everyday life.

“Someone’s got to try to heal wounds of the city, and part of that is cleaning up and rebuilding,” said Weiss, whose union lost four members. “It is just backbreaking work, unbelievably physical labor, and we’re trying to do it with some level of dignity.”

At the same time, barriers between different trades have faded, said Con Edison splicer Russell Montero. Montero spent 13 days at Ground Zero splicing cables above ground to restore electrical power to lower Manhattan.

It helped that Montero, who often works in manholes, was working in full view of other tradespeople. They asked him questions about the live electrical wires and helped him when needed.

“They were helping us out, and we helped them,” said Montero, a Glendale resident, who normally works in Queens. “Now that we’re back in the field, the police and firefighters are waving. I don’t think we’ll ever forget what we went through.”

Firefighter Adrienne Walsh, one of 27 women in the city’s 8,000-member fire department, appreciated the respect and the applause. She thanked the person who lent a cell phone for her to call her family and the volunteers with food and water.

Walsh, a marathoner who ran to Ground Zero from her home in Clinton Hill, insists everyone at Ground Zero – men and women from every kind of background – did what they were trained and able to do.

“There were people of different colors, different genders,” said Walsh, a five-year veteran of the fire department. “It wasn’t a mythological comic book. The myth doesn’t show who was really down there or what we really did. Children need to see the reality.”

Louis J. Coletti, chairman of the Building Trades Employers Association, hopes the goodwill translates into more high school students choosing construction work as a career. Unions are already advertising for applicants for its apprenticeship programs.

“One of the problems we’ve had in recruiting is the attitudes of educators and the attitudes of parents,” said Coletti. “When I was growing up, working with your hands was respected. We lost that respect. How did we get the skyline we have?”

Carpenter Bob Martin need only talk to his 4-year-old son to know the next generation appreciates his work.

“I’m sorry they knocked down your city, Daddy,” said Sean Martin, who offered a solution, learned from the “Three Little Pigs.” “Next time, build it with bricks,” he advised his father. “And if you don’t have any bricks, build it with wood and paint bricks on it.”

The Association for Union Democracy’s Matt Noyes hopes Sean’s appreciation isn’t confined to blue-collar families, but instead, turns into a desire to learn more about the dangerous and difficult work being done at Ground Zero and beyond.

“We don’t want to know how dangerous the work is, or how racist or sexist it is,” said Noyes, the Brooklyn association’s education director, who advises union members on fighting for democratic procedures. “The best thing for people who see construction work is to be curious about it, about how people work and for people who do it to come out with a consciousness of their value.”

Fire department Lt. Tom Whyte, who supervised fireboats in the waters off Ground Zero, worries that the respect from white-collar workers may be fleeting, though he believes their children may understand more.

“Yes, it is cool to like firemen these days and FDNY and NYPD hats are in,” said Whyte, but the Hastings-on-Hudson resident wonders if that is only temporary. He takes heart in the stories told by the firefighters who escaped the collapse.

“Listening to the firemen describe the people they met exiting the building, as they were going in, tells me that we will be respected more than we have in the past,” he said.

Published November 25, 2001