David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Revolt in the Asbestos
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (5/24/97) - Sergio Ruiz Nuņez is a lonely man.

Remembering his wife and daughter left behind in Mexico City a year ago, his chest starts to heave. He cannot speak. To hide the water welling up in the corners of his eyes, he turns away.

Ruiz is a big man, with muscles built by heavy labor bulking up under his teeshirt. But as his feelings overcome him, his size makes him seem vulnerable.

"You know," he finally says when he can speak again, "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 gets up and 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.

And 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 make simple demands. They 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 1800 asbestos workers.

In Los Angeles, where 2000 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 disarminglyrefers 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.

"I learned that when the union is involved in the community, it will never die," he says. 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. That's now about 12%. To increase that level by just one 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 takes more than just hired organizers - it takes a new involvement by members themselves, a step many unions are not prepared, or even willing, to take. "We'll never have nearly enough professional organizers to organize the number of workers we need to survive," Bensinger declares. "And if you look at history, that's not how the labor movement was organized in the first place. The fight to organize has to be owned by the members themselves."

In the asbestos industry, union activists do much of the work themselves of visiting, and even picketing, job sites, and talking to workers in their homes. 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 foreman 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.

But while whipsawing contractors may have a short-term effect, eventually the union would like to see them all form an association and sign a single agreement. That would take wages out of competition, and make it possible for contractors to raise them without becoming uncompetitive.

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% of the industry organized, union contractors in LA still pay better. Workers start at $8.85 an hour plus benefits, and after 1500 hours, make $10.37. According to the union, non-union contractors pay $2-3 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 3000 southern California asbestos workers outside of LA are also non-union, employed by the same companies. Once LA itself 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 dark 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 large part because the Laborers Union in New York would not organize or represent most asbestos workers.

As a result of winning the New York campaign, 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.

"We are the new Laborers," Gomez says. "We've come a long, long way." He believes that developing new leaders is one of the main purposes of organizing the industry, beyond just winning contracts. "I have an elected position," he says,"and I've told workers that I'm not afraid that they're going to want to run the union. They can put me out in three years if they want. To survive, we need new leaders, and with the help of our organizers, we're developing a lot of them. I've told other Laborers officials here in Los Angeles to be careful, because we're going to see a lot of these people."

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 US 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. "That's the challenge the labor movement has to meet here," she declares. "Are the leaders of this movement ready for it? Are they ready to fight with the workers? Because if they're not, somebody else will. This fight is going to happen, with or without them."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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