The history of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Union (which I will refer to as the International) can be traced from the beginning of their union back to the earliest days of the modern industrial era with expansion of steam power. Steam power began around 1880. Widespread use of steam power in this era resulted in better heated, more efficient industrial plants and created thousands of new manufacturing jobs. Working conditions improved and even living conditions in many homes were upgraded with the installation of steam power.
Among these benefits of steam power came the creation of an entire new industry of insulation. Insulations were needed to conserve the precious energy being piped from boilers into factories and offices and homes across the nation.
As the industrial development spread, the need for insulation mechanics began growing rapidly. The insulation mechanics who provided the craftsmanship required for such a sudden and large undertaking were, at that time, almost totally without organized representation. They had none of the benefits belonging to a national or international organization. By the end of the Nineteenth Century a few localized associations attempted to look after the interests of their members specific cities.
Around the turn of the century, the American labor movement was awakening to the turbulent era of economic depression, employers' disregarding the workers' rights and government advocacy of strike breaking, a movement began to unite the craftsman who were performing the much needed task of conserving the nation's newest and most modern energy resource.
The first attempt to form a national bond between the insulator's association came in 1900, when the Salamander Association of New York (which took its name from the reptile, that according to legend had a skin that was impervious to fire) sent out an appeal to related crafts in other cities to form a "National Organization of Pipe and Boiler Covers". The initial appeal did spark interest, and two years later a much more decisive action was taken by the officers and members of the Pipe Cover's Union, Local No. 1, of St. Louis, Missouri. The Brothers of Local No. 1 started forming an international union. The first appeal of unity was sent to targeted cities where other asbestos workers already were enjoying the benefits of a union affiliation, New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.
Local No. 1 of St. Louis produced some very encouraging results. In all, seven local unions from around the nation responded favorably, and they started the hard task of laying the foundation for an international union.
With the St. Louis Union leading the way, the interested locals responded to the call of formation of an international union and held their first convention on July 7, 1903. The results of the inaugural convention was drafting a constitution; by-laws were adopted; the first president was elected and the assessment of $1.00 was levied on each local union to pay expenses of the convention.
Within the era the United States and Canada were struggling through the debts of a severe depression. A virulent anti-union sentiment guided the hiring policies and working conditions set by a vast majority of employers. The federal government intervened in the labor-management disputes for the benefit of the employee. At this time the public was skeptical of a national labor movement.
By 1905, provisions were made that guaranteed each local would commit itself to the National policy of growth and strength through organizing. These were harsh times for the building trade unions and membership (gains had been made during the initial year or two of the unions' existence), but the willingness of some workers to work for wages far below what their skills demanded caused the Asbestos Workers union to dwindle. This could have been a disaster for less determined union leaders, but the Asbestos Workers fought back even harder. Gains were made slowly, to save money the 1906 convention was canceled and union organizers were cut back.
Over the next several years, membership crept up to the 1,000 mark and funds were obtained to establish an official position of General Organizers.
The year 1910 marked a new plateau for the National Association of Heat, Frost and General Insulators and Asbestos Workers of America. At this time the Canadian local unions added their strength to their American Brothers.
The goals of the new International were to "assist its membership in securing employment, to defend their rights, and advance their interests as working men; and by education and cooperation raised them to that position in society to which they are justly entitled." The Asbestos Workers would have jurisdiction of practical mechanical application, installation, or erection of heat and frost insulation, such as magnesia, asbestos, hair felt, wool felt, cork, mineral wood, infusorial earth, mercerized silk, flex fiber, fire felt, asbestos paper, asbestos curtain and millboard, or any substitute for these materials, or any labor connected with the handling or distributing of insulating materials on job premises.
With respect for the craftsman of their union, the 1910 International Chapter gave the Asbestos Workers a more solid foundation on which to build.
In 1914 the membership rolls had grown to 1,477 and the union continued to grow within the next two years. Then the dark days of World War I struck. The union stopped all its domestic production to help defeat the enemy in Europe. The war had created an urgent need for the skills of asbestos workers. This created so many jobs that the Asbestos Workers were able to aid a less successful union - the Operative Plasterers and Cement Finishers. Due to the war efforts requiring only certain types of building, the Plasterer's union members found themselves without work.
The Asbestos Workers held out the hand of union fraternalism. This agreement could be made without curtailing work for the asbestos workers and it provided much needed jobs. This was a shining example of brotherhood during an era of intense rivalry for membership among some other unions.
When World War I ended, the officers of the Union turned their attention to strengthening their union and protecting the gains they had made by developing codified, uniform agreements among the locals represented by the International. Some confusion and intra-union disputes occurred of skills and materials covered by its jurisdiction. The convention of 1919 helped clear up these disputes and other potential areas of disagreement. In 1919 the union's membership grew substantially.
The boom times of the war continued and the labor movement enjoyed much the same prosperity that was found across the nation. But the boom was bound to end. The construction industry fell as flat as the stock market with the crash in 1929. Black Friday stretched into a black decade and all of America and Canada suffered the worst economic hardship ever encountered.
When America went to war in 1941, the nation was not equipped with arms and supplies so a massive domestic effort was required to help bring our armed forces up to standards, and again the Asbestos Workers were called upon to apply their skills, particularly for the awesome task of rebuilding a Navy that suffered enormous destruction at Pearl Harbor.
As World War II ended, the nation began the task of domestic construction and the Asbestos Workers International gained membership by the hundreds. It was not long, though, before the success of this period confirmed long held suspicions by the International's leadership, of the frightening new evidence that workers who were exposed to asbestos died in disproportionate numbers from cancer. Although the manufactors of asbestos knew in the early 30's that asbestos was hazardous to the employees who came in contact with asbestos, the manufactors covered up these facts and did not inform the union of their findings. The union's suspicion hung on, but medical records on deceased members often were inaccurate or unavailable, and the asbestos industry itself coldly rejected the union's charges and covered up its own suspicions and records.
The International fought on alone. It would take years for anyone other than the union's membership to listen to the pleas for formal investigations and medical documentation. But the International continued its battle for full disclosure of the truth, and when it was finally successful the facts proved to be even worse than had been suspected.
Medical evidence now conclusively proves that exposure to asbestos fibers produces an extraordinary risk of contracting cancer. The most recent authoritative study shows that one asbestos worker member in five dies of lung cancer in one form or another. The early outcry from the Asbestos Workers proved to be, if anything, understated. The cancer rate among the union's members as well as among members' families is a national tragedy that possibly could have been mitigated if not avoided. Manufacturers, however, have a long and disgraceful history of suppressing their own investigations that led to the same tragic conclusions decades ago.
Another aspect of asbestos exposure is that related diseases often do not show up for 20 or 30 years. As a result, those same craftsmen who rebuilt the U.S. Navy to fight World War II are now fighting for their own lives because of the materials they used then.
The General President and other general officers continue the fight for fair treatment to the victims of asbestos exposure and they are continuing to branch out into other endeavors that will better serve the membership. A Health Hazard Screening Program has been completed for the health and well being of its members and their families; an active Political Action Fund has been established as a means of ensuring that labor's voice continues to heard in Congress; an excellent apprenticeship training program has been established to provide excellence in the craft; and an Instructor Training Program for Asbestos Removal has been set up through the International.
Without the International the Asbestos Workers would not have any regulations on safety. The International is helping in health and safety by conducting seminars to inform the workers the regulations the contractors must follow, the equipment and tools available to use for safety, and provide knowledge of the hazards. The hard fact is that 45% of workers who are heavily exposed to asbestos die from cancer. Asbestos workers are three times as likely to die of cancer than other people, five times as likely to die from cancer of the digestive system. The International has put together books and brochures to help the workers understand the danger they face and how to make sure the contractor gives them the protection they need. An example of the contents of one brochure is:
(1) "Danger - Asbestos Kills, A Worker's Guide to Health Rights" - this brochure contains messages such as: asbestos is a deadly workplace hazard. It can cause crippling lung disease called asbestosis and it can cause cancer. You've got a dangerous job, when you work with asbestos, you run the risk of getting lung disease. When breathing asbestos fibers, they become lodged in the lungs, cause scarring which makes it harder for the blood to pick up oxygen from the air and reduces the amount of air you inhale. Breathing becomes harder, you don't get as much oxygen into the blood and this puts a strain on the heart that can lead to heart failure. Asbestosis makes you very susceptible to lung infections and pneumonia, which can be fatal. Once asbestosis starts it is incurable and irreversible. Asbestos causes cancer of the lungs, stomach, esophagus, colon and rectum. It causes mesothelioma, (a cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen which only affects people exposed to asbestos).
(2) "Don't let asbestos kill your wife and children" - the workers are informed that when asbestos gets in their clothes and hair, it can go home with them and effect their families health. OSHA requires contractors to provide special protective clothing and respiration when tearing out asbestos.
(3) "Here's how to protect yourself" - information on air testing; respirators and a clean workplace are available.
Now the time has come when the real efforts of the International union comes into action, not only do we have to deal with hundreds of members dying and becoming disabled, we also must keep the employees and contractors abreast of all the regulations they must follow on the removal of asbestos.
Although asbestos is no longer used in building materials the long dangerous job of abatement has begun. One of the main problems is the disposal of asbestos and what to do with the waste. Since asbestos had been a near-miracle product from fire resistance and chemical resistance it is very difficult to dispose of. Proper waste techniques begin long before the waste bags are sent out to approved sites. First of all, we must insure that we reduce the possibilities of asbestos contamination, then put it into air-tight bags and all bags must contain warning labels. The bags are then placed in drums with lock rims and warning labels. After the drums' exteriors are cleaned they are moved through the air lock to a team in the waste load area. Once outside, they are moved to landfill sites. Regulations vary from state to state on waste disposal because disposal simply must occur at an authorized site in accordance with regulatory requirements of NESHAP (National Emission Standards of Hazardous Air Pollutants). The International has helped NESHAP and OSHA to conduct regulations to help protect the environment and the employees working with removing asbestos. The International also has the hard job of making sure contractors are equipped with all the necessary clothing and equipment. The Asbestos Worker is entitled to air respirators , and special clothing to cover the whole body, including the hair, feet and hands. All tools such as saws and drills must have their own vacuum systems.
It is the workers' right to know when they are in danger. The employees have a right to have somebody watch the air monitoring to make sure it is within legal measurements of asbestos fibers. These measurements are kept on record for 30 years. The union has the right to see the records any time even though the employee may not work for the contractor any longer. This information could be very useful because the asbestos disease does not show up for many years. It is the employees' right to have respirator training so they know the limitations of the respirator and how to tell if it's working properly. Fit-testing is to make sure the respirator has a good seal, along with daily cleaning and disinfecting, inspection and repairs. It is also the employees right to have a doctor's opinion on whether they will be able to work normally wearing a respirator.
Without the help of the International the members would not have had any protection or compensation of benefits. The manufactors of asbestos are making the employee prove he/she has caught the deadly disease from working with their products' which is a very slow process. Companies that manufacture asbestos products must be held liable.
The International is very concerned about our health and safety of our members. Therefore, we have helped to fund studies to provide findings such as "Smoking and having an asbestos related job - how this can cause even greater risks". A scientific study of the union members found that asbestos workers who smoke are ten times as likely to die of lung cancer as those who don't. A worker who quits smoking can cut his lung cancer risk in half, but not to be fooled - they can still get lung cancer from asbestos even if they've never smoked in their life.
Just as the Asbestos Workers International initiated and led the fight years ago to uncover the truth about asbestos exposure, today the International is leading the fight to gain adequate, fair compensation for its members who face such an uncertain future.