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Disrespect in the Workplace Leads Workers to Organize

May 30, 2008
When people ask me why workers need unions, I can answer in one word - respect. My experiences with Local 78, Asbestos, Lead and Hazardous Waste Laborers, and other workers trying to organize have proved a quintessential case in point.

When the asbestos abatement workers in New York first organized, our demands went beyond the basic wage and benefit issues that are usually connected with labor unions. We wanted better pay, but more than anything else, what fueled the organizing campaign was our need for respect, the universal need to be treated by our bosses as another human being, not just a unit of production.

The New York City asbestos industry was almost entirely non-union when the Laborers International Union of North America targeted it for unionization in 1995. Virtually all of the workers in the industry were immigrants, predominantly from Eastern Europe and Latin America. We didn't speak English, and many of us were undocumented.

The supervisors, meanwhile, were almost all native-born American. The power dynamic was tilted so much in favor of the bosses that the working conditions and the degree of disrespect reached an unsustainable level. Supervisors turned the working area into their own little fiefdom.

Asbestos abatement is physically-demanding and dangerous work. In 1995, the going rate was $12 per hour, with no benefits. Meanwhile, construction workers working in the same building were making five or six times that. Shifts often lasted twelve to sixteen hours, and just the mention of the word "overtime" would get you fired.

Supervisors had various methods of squeezing as much production out of workers as possible. Some supervisors made us wear numbers on the outside of our suits. If they saw a worker resting or slacking off the slightest bit, they would call his or her number. That meant you were fired.

Other supervisors divided workers into pairs, giving each pair a certain area to remove. At the end of each day, the pair that had done the least work was told not to come back. If it was legal and economically advantageous to brand us, there are some supervisors who might have done that.

In the most serious manifestation of this disrespect, supervisors often downplayed or even ignored the health risks that asbestos poses. A large portion of every asbestos abatement project is devoted to protecting the general public and the workers from asbestos exposure.

These safety measures, while necessary, are costly to the contractor. In order to get the job done quickly and cheaply, supervisors would flout the safety regulations, putting the workers in grave danger. We were often told not to wear the full-face masks because they slowed down our production. Of course, these masks also have the "side effect" of protecting us from inhaling asbestos fibers.

Working under these conditions on a daily basis, we were eager to start organizing when the Laborers' representatives came knocking. Hundreds of workers immediately made the commitment to fight for better conditions and signed union authorization cards.

After months of job actions, the campaign came to a culmination in the strike at the Exxon building in midtown Manhattan in February of 1996. Through the snow and cold, hundreds of workers marched against contractor Asbestos Containment Services Inc., calling for an end to the disrespect, low pay and dangerous conditions. Despite frenzied efforts by the contractor, we maintained our unity and held the line.

By the time the snow began to melt, we went back to work, but only after the balance of power was dramatically altered. We returned with a signed union contract laying out the rules of employment, and with a shop steward and union representatives whose job was to enforce the contract and represent us collectively.

After the campaign, LIUNA sent me to Alabama and North Carolina to help out in a campaign to organize chicken processing workers. It was there that I came to realize that our situation in New York was not unique. While the chicken plant workers complained about low pay, more than anything else they talked about not being allowed to take bathroom breaks.

How much would it have cost the company to allow a worker to take a five minute break? But this was not about cost savings. The company denied the workers this basic human decency because they only saw them as production units, closer to machines or work animals than as men and women.

As long as the bosses write the rules of employment, there will be abuses of power like those suffered by asbestos workers in New York City and chicken processing workers in North Carolina and Alabama. Wherever people are treated not as fellow humans but as cogs in the production machine, they will come together and fight for more control over their working conditions. That is the essence of a workers' union.
About the Author
Edison Severino is the Business Manager for Laborers Local 78, the largest asbestos, lead and hazardous waste local in the country, with over 3,400 members and 90% market share in New York City and Long Island. For more info please visit us at http://local78.net
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