Postal Dangers

Anthrax Inequalities

Revolutionary Worker #1125, November 4, 2001, posted at

The U.S. anthrax crisis continues to widen and intensify. Almost every day, there is news about more people contracting a form of the anthrax disease or new sites found to be contaminated with the bacteria.

On October 26, anthrax spores were discovered in a Maryland postal center that handles mail addressed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The New York Times noted that with this discovery, all three "pillars" of the U.S. system of government "have come face to face with the anthrax threat. Congress was first, with the infamous letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle. Then came the White House. Now it is the Supreme Court." The Supreme Court decided to shut down the building for tests and have the justices meet elsewhere--the first time that has happened in 66 years.

As of October 27, three people were confirmed dead from pulmonary anthrax, the form of the disease affecting the lungs (the cutaneous form affects the skin). The three who died were a journalist at the tabloid Sun in Boca Raton, Florida, and two postal workers in Washington, DC. At various locations in Washington, New York City, and New Jersey, at least ten people had confirmed anthrax infections, and more than two dozen had tested positive for exposure to the bacteria (but had not gotten the disease).

Government officials made conflicting statements about the potency of the powdery anthrax in the letter to Daschle, which was found on October 15. Some officials said the powder was in a coarse form and therefore not as dangerous as more finely "milled" anthrax--one official even called it "common variety." But in the days following the deaths of the two DC postal workers on October 22, there were reports that the officials were wrong.

The New York Times reported on October 25: "Several top scientists said today that the powdery anthrax found in that letter [addressed to Daschle] was advanced and highly dangerous, contradicting officials who had suggested over the past week that the substance was relatively primitive. In particular, the scientists said that it had been altered to reduce its electrostatic charge, making the spores less likely to clump together and more likely to float in the air. A government official said it was now clear that the envelope sent to Mr. Daschle was porous enough and the spores inside small enough, that germs could have leaked out even though it was taped shut."

The powder in the letter to Daschle was described as "fine and floaty"--which means that the germs can hang, unseen, in the air and get absorbed into the lungs of people, causing pulmonary anthrax--the most deadly form of the disease. Government officials had to admit they were wrong not to have considered that a sealed envelope containing anthrax might pose a hazard as it passed though a post office.

But such admissions came too late for the postal workers who died or became gravely ill. The whole way the anthrax threat has been treated on Capitol Hill as compared to at the post offices and mailrooms is a story of two unequal worlds.


"This makes you realize that, just like everything else, some people get more consideration than others."

Tony Jackson, a postal worker
in Washington, DC

When anthrax infected and killed a man at the headquarters of the tabloid Sun in Boca Raton, Florida, the building was shut down and everyone in the building and their families were tested.

The postal workers who processed the letter containing the anthrax were kept working. It wasn't until two weeks later, after repeated complaints, that the authorities got around to testing their facilities.

When traces of anthrax were discovered at NBC in New York's Rockefeller Center, the building was evacuated, people in the offices were tested, and some were immediately put on antibiotics.

But at the post office in the building, there were no tests, no medicine. Postal workers watched as people were evacuated from the building. They were told to keep working.

When anthrax was found in the Washington, DC, office of Senator Tom Daschle, there was a swift and large-scale response. The office was immediately quarantined. Over 50 people working at the office, or who had passed through there, were placed on antibiotics while they were tested for exposure to anthrax. Public tours at the Capitol were suspended. The House of Representatives closed for a week so that comprehensive tests could be carried out for presence of the bacteria.

The DC post offices that handled the mail to the Capitol remained opened, working at the normal feverish pace.

Now it is known that, since the first fatality in Florida, most victims of anthrax so far have not been high-powered politicians, news anchors or news editors. The most seriously affected have been the workers who handle the mail at post offices and mailrooms.

A mailroom worker at the Sun was recently released after spending weeks in the hospital with a serious case of anthrax. Joseph Curseen, 47, and Thomas L. Morris Jr., two DC postal workers, died on October 22; they worked at the Brentwood station, which processes all mail to addresses in DC. Two other Brentwood workers were hospitalized with pulmonary anthrax. On October 25, a mail handler--who works at a postal center in suburban Virginia which handles mail to the State Department--became the fifth postal worker in the DC area to have a confirmed case of pulmonary anthrax. Another postal worker in Trenton, New Jersey--where the letter to Daschle originated--has been diagnosed with pulmonary anthrax.

Joseph Curseen began to feel ill on October 16 with what he and his family thought was a bad flu. On October 20, he fainted at church but went to work that night. On Sunday, October 21, he went to the emergency room of a hospital. The ER personnel reportedly were not aware he was a postal worker, and they sent him home with some flu medication. The next day he collapsed at home, was taken to the hospital by ambulance, and died.

It was only after the deaths of the two Brentwood workers that the authorities finally directed postal workers to report to a hospital for testing and treatment. This was seven days after the anthrax-contaminated letter was first found at Daschle's office at the Capitol.

Since all mail to the Capitol goes through the Brentwood center, where 2,000 people work, it hardly took a major investigation to figure out that the mail handlers at Brentwood were at risk. The postal workers complained openly about the disparity between the way they were being ignored and the treatment of people at the Capitol. But the workers were ignored by the higher-ups.

Cynthia Hudson, a Brentwood worker, said, "They've been playing this down for us, telling us work was safe. And we're asking, 'How do we know that?' The Senate's mail comes through here."

James Coe, a distribution clerk, told the Washington Post, "Treatment should have started first for those who were handling the mail. Where are the deaths? People handling the mail. Nobody died in Congress yet."

"Why didn't we get checked?" said another worker at Brentwood, Leslie Harris. "This stuff has to move from point A to point B. The Senate is point B. We are point A. They took care of point B, but what about us? Nobody told us anything."

Outrage rippled through post offices up and down the East Coast. One postal worker told the ABC Nightline program, "It makes me angry. You know, they have a double standard." Another man said, "We should not have been overlooked. Our lives are just as important as anybody else's lives."

Once postal workers started dying and getting very sick and outrage began to mount, the authorities attempted damage control. Officials announced they were making gloves and masks available to workers and that workers at sites suspected of contamination would be tested and given antibiotics. Postal officials even took the opportunity to wrap themselves up in patriotism by "paying tribute" to the two postal workers who died when they issued the new "United We Stand" stamp showing the U.S. flag.

But many workers said the official measures were not enough. After anthrax was found on a mail sorting machine at Morgan Station, the largest mail distribution center in New York City, the president of the New York Metro Area Postal Union urged the 5,500 workers at Morgan not to report to work because it was too dangerous. Dennis O'Neal, a mail sorter at Morgan, said, "They've closed every other building where anthrax has been found, so why won't they close this building? Are they waiting for someone to die?"

At the same time, workers and others critical of the government's handling of the anthrax crisis have been told by high officials to shut up--or be considered "unpatriotic." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said people should not criticize the government because "the cause of death was the attack made on our nation by people mailing anthrax." Postmaster General John Potter told Nightline, "This is not a situation where America should be pointing fingers at anyone else other than the terrorists."


It remains unclear who is behind the anthrax mailings. After initially raising all kinds of speculation about "connections" to Osama bin Ladin or Iraq, officials have had to admit they've found no evidence of such links. Some officials and media reports have raised the possibility of involvement by right-wing groups in the U.S. An October 27 Associated Press report noted the possible "significance of the targets chosen so far--media outlets and a Democratic politician who could be despised by ultraconservative extremists and isolationists." As the RW pointed out last week (see "Anthrax USA" in #1124), white supremacist and Christian fascist groups in the U.S. have a history of using anthrax threats against women's clinics and other targets.

While the identity of those responsible for the anthrax letters are unknown, the reasons why anthrax has been so deadly for postal and mailroom workers is very clear. This is a country where a small elite at the top gets the privileges and preferences of power, while the majority of working people are considered invisible and dispensable. It's a system of unequal class relations. This is the reality behind the "United We Stand" rallying cry being pushed by the ruling class in an attempt to get people to support the current war.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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