Postal Workers Test Positive for Anthrax, and They Wonder What’s Being Done to Protect Them

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Anthrax bacteria spread by mail to Argentina and Kenya, and new cases emerged in the United States, as officials worldwide moved to contain what they called a “growing bioterrorist threat.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Wild Wild West,” Will Smith and Dru Hill, here on The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting just blocks from the first Ground Zero. Now Afghanistan is the second. Yes, the towers of the World Trade Center rubble continue to be combed through by emergency workers day and night, and the fire still burns. Where we are, just outside the—what used to be the whole evacuation zone, where Humvees are parked outside our door, National Guard and police continue at the police checkpoint. We can continue to hear the—and to smell the burning that goes on at the World Trade Center site.

Anthrax bacteria spread by mail to Argentina and Kenya, new cases emerging in the United States, as officials worldwide are moving to contain what they’re calling a “growing bioterrorist threat.” A postal worker in New Jersey and an assistant CBS—an assistant to CBS News anchor Dan Rather have tested positive for skin anthrax. Officials revealed that a postal worker has contracted skin anthrax in New Jersey, with a second postal worker still being tested. The pair worked in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, the site of a sorting office through which two anthrax-filled letters earlier sent to Brokaw and to the Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Investigators are combing through the congressional buildings searching for traces of anthrax.

Postal Workers are wondering, though, what’s being done to protect the people who sort and deliver the mail. Today, the New York City postal employees are holding a news conference to talk about what is and isn’t being done to address their concerns. We’re joined on the phone by William Smith, president of the New York Metro Postal Workers Union.

The first question is: Have your workers been tested?

WILLIAM SMITH: No, they have not. They are in the process of testing the workers, according to Paul Detaglia phon., at Rockefeller Center.

AMY GOODMAN: And Paul is?

WILLIAM SMITH: He is the aerial safety manager for the regional—Northeastern region for the United States Postal Service, OK? That’s what they said to me yesterday when I threatened to take them to the—take the workers public to the press. They went back and called the area—which is probably David Solomon, who is Paul Detaglia’s boss, and Vinnie Malloy, which is the postmaster here, right here in Manhattan, in Manhattan and the Bronx. And they decided, according to Paul now, that they’re going to have all 47 workers in Rockefeller Center tested. But I’ll believe that when I see it. OK?

AMY GOODMAN: So, have they—they have not been tested at this point?

WILLIAM SMITH: As yet, they have not been tested. They said that yesterday they were going to start the process to start to get those employees tested, because they do know that the letter did come through—that went to NBC, came through Rockefeller Center.

AMY GOODMAN: Why haven’t they tested to this point?

WILLIAM SMITH: Well, the odd thing was that Paul told the workers the Postal Service’s position was that you have to have some kind of symptom to be able to be tested, such as a fever or a rash or that nature. Now, we know that’s not the case, because they tested workers in Trenton, and they claim one of the workers in Trenton had a rash, but the other ones were tested just for cautious purposes. Now, I don’t know which one tested positive, but one of them—I heard on the news, and Liz Powell called me yesterday afternoon—when I came out of the field and came back to the union office, they told me that one of them did test positive. And that is where the letter came from out of Trenton that went to NBC and also to the senator office down in Washington, D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: The people who work, the producers, the executives at NBC who work there did not have to show symptoms to be tested, and hundreds have been tested.

WILLIAM SMITH: Absolutely. That’s exactly what the worker point out to Paul Detaglia at Rockefeller Center yesterday. They point out that first he said that the only workers in NBC were tested on the third floor. And one of the employees, a member of my union, told him, “So you have to be lying, because over 500 NBC employees were tested, and you’re not going to tell me all 500 employees work on the third floor, OK?” So, that was outright a lie. It’s so demeaning that the Postal Service is interested in preserving dollars, not trying to prevent this disease or find out have any of these workers been affected by this disease. It’s clear to me. I don’t know. And I want the public to understand what the worker in the postal system has been dealing with for a long, long time. These are the type of people that run this institution. The IG, which is general inspector, had testified this year to Congress about the lack of concern about the postal worker that management have. That’s been a wild world report to Congress, and Congress already know that. But they have not did anything about it.

So, the postal workers been going through this for many, many years, but this time this is a serious problem. You know, this is not like all the trucks they got out there. They got almost hundreds of thousands of trucks that need to be took off the highway because they never have been inspected. Now you know and I know cars in this country have to be inspected for you to stay on the highway, but not the Postal Service. Postal Service have their own laws. They’re exempt from the other agencies, and they do what they want to do. But this is not just a ragly trucks out there on the highway. We’re dealing with a bacteria here, a virus, that can cause a chain reaction. And if they don’t find a way to monitor this mail, it’s going to start to get more and more—the public is going to start to get more contaminated by, because the mail will come to the public. And we need to understand that. Not only it’s going to affect the workers, the front line soldiers who process this mail and process millions and millions of pieces of mail a day in this system throughout, nationwide, this country; it’s going to start affecting the American people, because once it’s come through the system, it’s going to be delivered to you, whoever we are. And we need to understand, clearly understand that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what you’ll all be saying at the news conference today?

WILLIAM SMITH: Well, we’re going to have the Greenwald, Clifton & Nikolaidis, the law firm that represents the union, to talk about the legal process that we’re going to have to start if the Postal Service do not start to test these employees, that we do believe that the first letter that came to NBC came through Rockefeller Center. And I was up there yesterday. The employees are upset. We had the regional spokesman up there for the Postal Service, made him have a live debate. And the workers want to be tested. I had to threaten to take them to the press to bring them up here on a Saturday, maybe the next Saturday, have a press conference, so they can give our concern to the press. And then they decided, after that, that they might have these employees, 47 employees up there, tested, in that—in my—that I represent. I represent the clerks, the people that process the mail, maintenance personnel and the drivers, in my local. Those are some of the things the public needs to understand, that that’s what we want, too.

The postal system, the United States Postal Service, has a long abuse of safety violations in the workplace, and that’s what the law firm will be going over those. Since I’ve been the president of this union, I had to brought OSHA in to many complaints, have got the Postal Service fined on some of them. And they have also removal—have got OSHA to cut the fines. This is an ongoing battle with me and the Postal Service. But my basic concern and the workers’ basic concern is: Why are they not treated like all the other employees that came in contact with this disease or this virus? Every other major industry, all the employees came in contact or might have been working around the letter that came to NBC, all NBC employees got tested. All the employees down in Tom Daschle—Senator Daschle’s office got tested, but not the postal service. They don’t seem to need to have our employees tested.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to William Smith, president of New York Metro Area Postal Workers Union. Now, you represent the workers inside the post office who do the sorting, who work in the post office, and then there’s a separate union, is that right, for the letter carriers?

WILLIAM SMITH: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the letter carriers? Were they tested right away?

WILLIAM SMITH: I have not talked to Opala [phon.] and found out that any of his members had been tested. I have talked to Larry Adams, who’s the president also—he’s the president of the mail handlers’ union. That was yesterday, and he’s supposed to be at the press conference today. And I’m sure none of his employees been tested. So, we have a standoff with the Postal Service about these tests and these employees.

The Postal Service’s basic concern is cost. They came into the Rockefeller Center and told the workers yesterday that they have spent $100,000 just on gloves and respirator masks alone. And I said that was an insult to the workers, because, number one, the Postal Service paid theirselves, managers and board of governors almost $280 million bonuses, to theirselves, 2000, of the year 2000. Now they’re going to talk about they spent $100,000 for protective gear for the workers, because they’ve got to sort this mail. That’s an insult to the workers themselves. And not only, I am really pushing hard for Congress and the Senate to do something about the Postal Service, because these people have been operating on the position that they can do what they want to do, for many, many years, because they think they are the government, and the rules or regulations do not apply to them.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the racial makeup of the people you represent in the post office?

WILLIAM SMITH: Well, we have a large percentage of minority people in our union. That is a fact. It’s anywhere from, I say, from 73 percent minorities to the other race that belong to New York Metro. And I don’t know that that have anything to do with it, because they’re not testing people in Florida. They don’t want to test anyone. The fact is, these people just do not understand the significance of these workers being on the front line and got to deal—to process this mail.

So our basic concern is to get the mail in and get it out to the customer, which everybody know the Postal Service is in the business to make money, because if they didn’t make no money, the workers could not have a job. We understand that. But also we have to be concerned about the safety of these workers. And to me, they are not involved in looking out of the safety of these workers. The first thing they should do is begin screen this mail. And they can do that by adding something on that machine that would be able to monitor the mail that comes through and be able to pick up this virus. But they don’t want to do that, because it’s going to cost them some money, and they ain’t interested in spending no money.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your thoughts when you saw the first news reports that Tom Daschle had received a letter, and immediately the long lines of people who work in Congress lined up to be tested; when the news came out of Tom Brokaw having received a letter, and his assistant testing positive for anthrax, already as they were talking about all of the people on the floors being tested within those first days?

WILLIAM SMITH: Well, my concern is basically is this. We know for a fact that the FBI department and the Department of Justice and the attorney general of this nation informed the Postal Service on the 18th that—approximately the 18th of September, that this letter had came through the system in Trenton, New Jersey. The Postal Service, up until October the 12th, did not inform anyone in the working in this mail about this problem. They kept this secret almost 27 days. The only reason the employees of this system find out about it is because of the news media. The news media get criticized a lot of time, but thank God for the news media this time, because they are the one that broke it to the employees. Now, that is—to me, that’s criminal, because they knew about it, and they did not even come on the work floor to inform the employees about that.

The second thing I want to say to the American public is this. It took New York Metro to get a news media out to the news about they were not even giving gloves up until three days ago to the postal employees. Now they are putting out memos telling the employees that they have gloves and the protection masks. But that took the news media to actually put that out. The Daily News right here in New York City was the one that talked about it a lot. [inaudible] Tin Can Radio talked about it a lot. These are some of the things that have been taking place inside of this workplace. And that is for so many things that we’re going to be talking about at the news conference today, because there’s—it is clear: Management do not want to deal with this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are the—people who are working in the post office and the letter carriers, what are you doing to protect yourselves?

WILLIAM SMITH: Well, right now, I inform all my members that if you see anything suspicious, any kind of powder substance, or anything of that nature, do not touch the mail. Get in touch with the managers, the supervision of the station, whatever station you work, and make sure you get someone to check it out. We also inform the employees they must wear the gloves. I know the gloves going to be hard to deal with, because you can hardly process mail with gloves on. But that is some of the things they must do to prevent—to prevent them from coming in contact with this disease, this bacteria.

The other thing we talked about is the wearing protective masks system. We’re telling them that they have to wear that, because it’s known for a fact that all the doctors and scientists are saying that if you inhale this stuff, it’s more dangerous than to you go through the skin factor. So what we are doing is we’re out on the work floor. There are stewards in there that are in this union. Coordinators, vice presidents of this union is out there talking to the workers, informing the members these are the things that we’re going to have to go through to make sure that the workers are protected. And the workers still have a basic concern of fear. That’s normal. I expect that. Most people will, because we don’t really know exactly what this bacteria consists of. We’re only going by what the doctors and the government say.

AMY GOODMAN: When you heard that the postal worker in New Jersey had contracted skin anthrax, a second one being tested, what was the response of your members in the Postal Workers Union?

WILLIAM SMITH: Well, they’re outraged, and I’m going to tell you why they’re outraged. See, I was just at Rockefeller Center yesterday, and I just told you, management had the area troubleshooter up there with me. And we had a dialog back and forward with the members. See, he told them, at first, that the only way they can be tested, you got to show some kind of reaction—other words, he told the workers you have to have some kind of rash, some kind of symptom, to be—for to be tested. And then he told them that when the letter came through in Trenton, that they had tested two employees. One of the employees had a rash, and they found out that he had poison ivy. And the other one—both of the employees’ tests came back, came back negative. Yesterday afternoon, I got a call from Liz Powell, which is the Northeastern regional coordinator for APW, which is—the APW is our nationwide—told me, that Paul Detaglia lied to them, lied to me and the workers, that one of the workers out there tested positive for it in Trenton post office. So these are the things—now I’m going to go back to Rockefeller Center and tell those folks that Paul lied to them yesterday. And that is the reason why the workers do not believe anything management say.

AMY GOODMAN: William Smith, president of the New York Metro Postal Workers Union. That union, along with the letter carriers union, is going to be holding a news conference today in New York. You are listening to Democracy Now! in Exile’s War and Peace Report. And when we come back, we’re switching gears. We’re going to go across the world to India for an extended interview with the great writer Arundhati Roy. Stay with us.

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