The Revolt In The Asbestos


Sergio Ruiz Nuñez is a lonely man. Remembering his wife and
daughter left behind in Mexico City a year ago, he cannot speak. To hide the water welling
up in the corners of his eyes, he turns away. "You know," he finally says,
"when you come to this country you have so many illusions. There are so many things
you think you’ll do, and you have all the will in the world to get ahead and help
your family. You put your soul into your work, your heart and your life. And then you find
the reality, and you leave those illusions and romantic ideas behind."

Every weekday morning, and most Saturdays, Ruiz hauls himself to the
job, another old building undergoing renovation. There he puts on a white paper-like suit,
complete with hood and booties like a kid’s pajamas. Sometimes he has to put on two
of them. Then he dons a mask and often a breathing apparatus. He walks into a special area
of the building, sectioned off with an airtight seal of tape and plastic sheets. He starts
to strip asbestos, possibly the most dangerous building material ever used.

One tiny fiber of this mineral, once a common ingredient in
insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, and drywall, can bring on cancer. In the lungs it
causes asbestosis, forming carcinomas and robbing the body of its breath. In the chest
cavity, asbestos fibers cause another painful cancer—mesothelioma. Despite the danger
of his job, Ruiz has no health insurance. He started out stripping asbestos for $6.85 an
hour. Now he makes $9.00. It’s no wonder that all of his coworkers come, as he does,
from other countries, mostly Mexico and Central America. "We don’t know our
rights," he explains, "and therefore we’re abused at the hands of very
powerful people. All the people I work with are Latinos. When white people see our truck,
they won’t even come near us. We’re untouchable."

Anger at high expectations gone bad is fueling the newest upsurge
among Los Angeles’ huge immigrant workforce. Asbestos workers have made a pact with
the Laborers Union. Together they are seeking to organize their industry and transform
it from the bottom up.

The workers want contractors to use water to dampen the asbestos
while they’re working, to prevent fibers from getting into the air. They want showers
at the end of the day. Rafael Orellana, who’s worked in the industry for 14 years,
explains that "if you don’t take a shower when you leave work, you take the
fibers home to your wife and kids. You put your family at risk." Orellana says that
non-union workers often complain that contractors pay them with two checks to avoid
overtime pay. One check pays for the first 40 hours in a week. The second pays for the
overtime hours, but at straight-time rates. Like farmworkers in Watsonville and hotel
workers in Las Vegas, asbestos workers are using an industry-wide strategy to build their
union, an idea at the cutting edge of tactics developed by union organizers around the
country. For decades, unions tried to organize workplaces one-at-a-time. That approach has
become much more difficult, as the enforcement of labor law has become dominated by
employers and union-busting consultants. Two years ago in New York City, the Laborers
Union made common cause with a grassroots group of asbestos workers, the Hazardous
Materials Workers Union, and a group of health and safety advocates, the White Lung
Association. Together they organized the city’s 1,800 asbestos workers.

In Los Angeles, where 2,000 workers doing the same job have no
union, "we came to the conclusion that we had to take on the industry as a whole,
using the model developed in New York," explains Humberto Gomez, president of
Laborer’s Local 882 and an international union representative. Gomez disarmingly
refers to himself as "a humble campesino," but he actually spent over two
decades organizing for the United Farm Workers. He combines some of the UFW’s tested
tactics with those pioneered in New York. "He’s pushing the Laborers to set up
UFW-style service centers, where non-union workers can get help with problems like
unemployment benefits and immigration.

Richard Bensinger, national organizing director for the AFL-CIO,
highlighted the asbestos workers’ campaign at a recent conference of 800 LA
organizers and union activists at the Convention Center. He argues that industry-wide
campaigns are the key to solving an enormous problem—organizing workers on the scale
required to keep the labor movement alive. Given growth in new jobs, and the attrition in
union ranks caused by layoffs and downsizing, the AFL-CIO needs to organize 400,000
workers a year to maintain the existing percentage of union workers in the total
workforce, about 12 percent. To increase that level by just 1 percent, unions would have
to organize 800,000 to 1,000,000 workers. The federation has yet to meet even the first
goal.

"We need to organize on a bigger scale," Bensinger
asserts, "taking on all the asbestos contractors, for instance. We’re promoting
industry-wide organizing." But building the labor movement on this scale will take
new involvement by members, a step many unions are not prepared, or even willing, to take.
In the asbestos industry, union activists do much of the work themselves of visiting, and
even picketing, job sites, and talking to workers. Some are volunteers, helping out after
work and on weekends. Others have left their jobs for a period, and now work on staff
full-time.

Orellana has been a union member for years, working for the few
contractors with union agreements. "I’ve been removing asbestos since
1984," he says, "and in that time three of my friends died of asbestosis,
working for non-union contractors. When my last friend died, and I was pretty close to
him, I found out about this campaign. I thought to myself, it’s time to make a
change. That’s why I became a volunteer organizer—to save the lives of my
coworkers and their families." Martin Cuevas was a foreperson on non-union jobs. When
he heard about the campaign, he too volunteered. "Half of the organizers are guys
like me that come out of the field," he says. According to Cuevas, workers are afraid
because the companies say they’ll fire them. For those who have no immigration
papers, finding another job is risky and difficult.

When the Laborers decided to organize the asbestos industry, it sent
Ruiz, Orellana, Cuevas, and others to a training program specifically for organizers in
the building trades called COMET. In New York, 300 workers went through the training, and
17 then went to work for the campaign. In the COMET program, workers learn to combine
their knowledge of the industry with sophisticated organizing techniques.

Little by little, that training is paying off. The union won its
first victory a month ago, when one of the largest contractors, The Environmental Group,
Inc., signed a peace agreement. The company has recognized the Laborers Union and agreed
it will begin contract negotiations once the union has organized a threshold percentage of
the industry. "It means they’ll no longer fight us, because they know we’ve
got the support of their workers," Orellana explains.

The largest contractor in LA, CST Environmental, Inc., is one of the
next targets, along with two other big ones, Remtech Restoration Corp. and Latch-on
Insulators, Inc. To unionize them, the union is using an inside/outside strategy. On the
one hand, it organizes inside the companies, talking to workers on the job and at home.
But it also puts pressure on from outside, picketing non-union jobsites, and informing the
community that asbestos is potentially contaminating both workers and the environment.
Sage Kohara, who owns CST, calls the union’s tactics unprofessional, and says his
company complies with environmental regulations requiring showers for workers and water to
wet down asbestos in the worksite. "They’re just pissing off the building
owners," he says.

David Johnson, a leader of the New York campaign now working in LA,
says the tactics work because "the contractors hate each other." When worker
demonstrations and community pressure make it less desirable to use non-union contractors,
union companies or ones with peace agreements are only too happy to do the work.

Kohara agrees that contractors aren’t very united in LA. CST
has done asbestos removal in the past in northern California, where the industry is
unionized, and in New York. Based on that experience, he believes an industry-wide
agreement with the union would work if all the contractors were included, and he called
TEG’s peace agreement "an interesting concept." But Kohara still doubts
that an industry-wide agreement is achievable in southern California.

Even with only 15 percent of the industry organized, union
contractors in LA still pay better. Workers start at $8.85 an hour plus benefits, and
after 1,500 hours, make $10.37. According to the union, non-union contractors pay $2 to $3
an hour less, with no benefits. But when asbestos stripping started over a decade ago, pay
was as high as $36 an hour. An industry-wide agreement is the only way to regain that lost
ground. Another 3,000 southern California asbestos workers outside of LA are also
non-union, employed by the same companies. Once LA is organized, the union intends to move
on to them as well.

The Laborers have agreed to split the jurisdiction with another
union, Frost and Insulation Workers Local 5. That union has a history of exclusion. When
it first took in immigrant workers years ago, they had no right to vote in local
elections. Eventually a whole separate union, Local 208, was chartered for them. Latinos
demanded changes, however, and both locals were finally combined. Now all members, like
Rafael Orellana, have the same rights.

The Laborers Union has had a majority of Latino and African-American
members for decades. The influx of thousands of workers is sure to cause even bigger
changes in both the Laborers and Insulators, unions widely perceived in the past as
inactive and uninterested in a militant fight to uphold wages and good conditions. This is
a widespread perception, not just in Los Angeles, but nationally.

In New York City, "there was a long history of corruption,
cheating and payoffs," Johnson says. The new president of the Laborers, Arthur Coia
Jr., placed 10 locals and a district council under international control, removing their
leaders. Assuring a cleaner and more democratic union was a precondition for
winning support from the Hazardous Materials Workers Union, set up in largely because the
Laborers Union in New York would not organize or represent most asbestos workers. As a
result of winning in New York, the Laborers chartered a new local for them. All of its
officers and business agents, including Humberto Yepes, formerly head of the Hazardous
Materials Workers Union, come from the industry.

One sign this renovation process is not just hype is the
union’s ability to attract and hold organizers like Yanira Merino. After two years of
heading organizing drives among meat and poultry workers in the midwest, she is back in LA
working with the asbestos campaign. Merino originally came to the U.S. from El Salvador.
In 1988, while working on support efforts for the struggle back in her homeland during its
civil war, she was kidnapped and tortured in Los Angeles by a terror squad tied to the
rightwing Arena party.

"I’m part of the workforce in this country," she
says. "I worked in a shrimp-processing plant when I first came here, and experienced
the terror employers use when their workers say they’ve had enough and start
organizing. Coming from a third-world country like El Salvador, I never thought I’d
see that in a first-world country like this. But even though you put your life on the line
to organize a union back home, you have to fight for your rights in either place. I
don’t see much of a difference."

Like Gomez, Merino believes that immigrant workers in the asbestos
industry will produce a new generation of leaders who will expect more of their
unions.