Last modified: February 12, 2021
Labor unions have played a vital role in helping protect employees from toxic asbestos, pushing for safer working conditions, stronger legislation and fairer treatment for those who have been harmed by the product.
They are considered leaders in the fight against asbestos.
Although the history of labor unions can be traced back to the earliest days of the 20th century, their battle against asbestos exposure — and the devastation it causes — didn’t really take off until the end of World War II in 1945.
The post-war era brought tremendous prosperity for American business, but it also bolstered the strength of unions and uncovered the frightening truth that workers exposed to asbestos were dying in disproportionate numbers, and manufacturers of the products were doing their best to hide that fact.
Unions helped bring it to light.
History of Asbestos Use in U.S. Industries
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that became a valuable product throughout the 20th century. It was lauded for its ability to fireproof and strengthen almost anything that was mixed with it. The versatility and affordability of asbestos made it synonymous with the post-war economic boom in North America.
Despite its usefulness, asbestos was toxic to those around it, leading to a number of serious health issues, including respiratory diseases, asbestosis and mesothelioma — a rare, aggressive cancer with no known cure.
Because asbestos became so pervasive after World War II, it left its imprint on a variety of industries: construction, manufacturing, mining, shipbuilding, railroading and automobile production.
It was used in thousands of products, including cement, insulation, roofing materials, clutches, gaskets and brakes, caulking compounds and plasters, fire-retardant coatings and paints.
Labor unions began seeing firsthand what it was doing to their members. Inhaling or ingesting toxic asbestos fibers was leading to serious health issues in many trades.
Union Involvement Starts to Grow
Union involvement in the fight to protect workers has varied through the years, often depending upon what trade or what industry was affected.
Dozens of trade unions were formed in the 20th century. Some of the more influential ones still exist, such as:
- International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers: The union represents a number of different construction trades. It includes those skilled in the installation of mechanical insulation, asbestos and lead mitigation, and specialty fabrications.
- International Brotherhood of Boilermakers: This is a diverse union that goes beyond boiler construction and repair. Its workers are in industrial construction, maintenance and repair, manufacturing, marine repair and shipbuilding, mining and quarrying.
- United Auto Workers (UAW): The UAW goes well beyond the automobile industry while representing members in almost every sector of the economy. It includes auto manufacturing, high-tech aerospace and defense, health care, higher education and the gaming industry.
- Utility Workers Union of America: These are workers in the gas, water, electric and nuclear industries.
- United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers & Allied Workers: The union represents those who work with roofing and waterproofing systems, including low-sloped and steep-sloped roofing and air-barrier applications.
- Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen: This is North America’s oldest rail labor union, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013. It represents most all train-service employees on numerous railroads.
- International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO: It’s the largest collection of maritime workers in North America.
- [United Mine Workers of America, AFL-CIO: A diverse group of coal miners, manufacturing workers, public employees, truck drivers and clean coal technicians forms this union that was founded in 1890.
- International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union: These are the people who erect the skeletons of almost every major structure, including schools, stadiums, bridges, shopping malls, hospitals and office parks.
Voices of Unions Are Active and Heard
Unions are best known for the bargaining they do to improve wages, benefits and working conditions, but they have been equally instrumental in trying to protect workers from unsafe conditions and toxic materials like asbestos.
Unions were warning employees and companies about the dangers of asbestos nearly 70 years ago, but unfortunately, their voices often weren’t loud enough or powerful enough. Businesses put profits ahead of worker safety, and workers were continually exposed to the toxic mineral, resulting in future serious illnesses.
Companies that manufactured asbestos products often knew of the toxicity, but they suppressed the medical and scientific evidence, knowing many asbestos diseases take decades to develop.
Unions, even in the early years, were sounding the alarm, long before the politicians started legislating compliance to stricter controls of asbestos.
The United Steelworkers Union, for example, has lobbied Congress for decades in hopes of amending the current Toxic Substances Control Act to better protect its workers.
The union presented its latest case in 2013 to a House of Representatives Subcommittee, citing the ineffectiveness of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the laws that have prevented the complete ban of asbestos in manufacturing. The EPA had passed a ban in 1989, but it was overturned in federal court in 1991.
“As a result, asbestos is still in commercial use in the United States. The EPA has not tried to ban a substance since the ruling on asbestos 22 years ago,” cited the official report submitted to Congress in 2013.
Unions have been instrumental in the legislative process for many years. Since 2005, for example, there have been different versions of proposed legislation in Congress that have tried to weaken the ability of asbestos victims to hold companies legally accountable for their asbestos negligence. The unions have helped fight off those bills.
On the state level, labor unions in Wisconsin, West Virginia and Ohio are battling business-backed legislative efforts today to weaken their influence and put undo restrictions on asbestos victims seeking compensation for their suffering.
Heat and Frost Insulators Union
The International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators & Allied Workers has led a number of initiatives that have helped its workers with the asbestos issue for decades.
A Health Hazard Screening Program was designed to help both workers and their families. A Political Action Fund was established to ensure the union’s voice was heard in Congress. An Instructor Training Program for Asbestos Removal was started, delivering additional resources for union members to help educate themselves.
“It is the workers’ right to know when they are in danger,” is the theme continually reinforced on the union website.
That same union was publishing books and brochures for their members on the topic of asbestos. Titles included, “Danger – Asbestos Kills, A Worker’s Guide to Health Rights”, “Don’t Let Asbestos Kill Your Wife and Children” and “Here’s How to Protect Yourself.”
Additional Union Involvement
Unions have long encouraged their members to get involved both politically and legislatively in their local communities, identifying causes and candidates that support their views.
They spend considerable time, effort and money lobbying legislators at the national and state levels, keeping watch and protecting advancements they have made.
Unions in recent years have worked closely with personal injury attorneys who specialize in asbestos litigation, which is especially complex, helping its members find the help they need.
They have assisted in finding medical and legal help for members who have been wronged by the big businesses where they worked. Unions have led the fight for early and routine health screenings for asbestos workers.
Even non-trade unions have helped the cause. The Capitol Police Union filed a formal complaint in Washington, D.C., with its own Office of Compliance for failing to protect its officers from asbestos exposure.
The Firefighters Union in Everett, Washington, for example, worked to get lifetime medical monitoring for potential asbestos-related health problems for its members after they were exposed during a training session in old city-owned houses. Because of the union’s involvement, the city also agreed to pay for medical costs if future health problems arise. The city was responsible for a training session done without the proper safety equipment.
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