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By David Bacon

BROOKLYN, NY (3/27/03) -- Organizing a union can be dangerous to your job. It shouldn't be dangerous to your health. But for immigrant workers, it's often both. That's what a Brooklyn judge, Steven Davis, concluded this February, after a long trial marked by accusations that a Long Island asbestos removal company fired workers for union activity, exposed them to deadly asbestos fibers, and was owned by a man who brought a gun onto the job to terrorize them. In a landmark opinion, Judge Davis, a hearing officer for the National Labor Relations Board, ordered Extreme Building Services to stop "physically assaulting employees, preventing employees from washing up at the fire hydrant, destroying employees' asbestos workers licenses, [and] interrogating employees concerning their union membership."

The judge then ordered the company to put five fired workers back on the job. Unfortunately, however, a decision by an NLRB judge doesn't mark the end of the line, and those workers may not return anytime soon. If Extreme decides to appeal Davis' order, it could stretch out legal proceedings for years.

Nationally, one third of all efforts made by workers to join unions results in at least one firing, according to the AFL-CIO. While the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1936 to outlaw such events, it doesn't provide much protection today. An epidemic of retaliation has spread across US workplaces, and immigrants especially have become its targets. Firings and retaliation, in turn, produce fear. Whether or not a firing is eventually declared illegal, a fired worker is still out of a job. Fear of firing is one important reason why the percentage of organized workers keeps dropping . Last year union density declined again. In 2002, only 13.2 percent of US workers belonged to unions.

Yet some unions grow despite this. One of them, the Laborers Union, is the union workers at Extreme wanted to join. The Laborers have discovered that the anger of immigrant workers, who see themselves on the bottom, is an effective antidote to fear.

Just to get from her native Ecuador to Long Island, Maria Ortega, a fired Extreme employee, had to borrow $7000. "So we have to work in whatever conditions we find so we can send something back," she explains. "It's very serious to lose a job here because it could mean losing your house back home. Many of us have had to leave our children behind. Where would they live then?" On Long Island, Ortega became an asbestos stripper, one of the most dangerous jobs in America. One tiny fiber of this mineral, once a common ingredient in insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, and drywall, can cause asbestosis and mesothelioma, a form of cancer which robs the body of its breath, and eventually life. Ortega was hired to clean asbestos from the basement of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center on Long Island. According to another fired worker, Betsey Arruda, "there were no microtraps [to filter out stray fibers], the plastic sheeting didn't seal the job, and they didn't use water to keep the fibers from getting into the air." Because there were no functioning showers, workers feared they were bringing home the fibers on their clothes and bodies. "They'd tell us to use the fire hydrant to wash off after work," Arruda says. "Anyone who protested was sent home."

The atmosphere of fear increased when Extreme's owner, Emil Braun, brought a gun into the basement one day, and threatened to use it to open a stuck door. "Everybody was terrorized -- no one dared to talk to him," Arruda recalls. Braun refused to be interviewed. But Extreme workers didn't just get scared. They got angry. "It's not supposed to be that way here," Ortega says hotly. "We're immigrants, but we're human beings too."

Polish immigrants were also working in the basement, doing the same job. Andres Siemak, stripping asbestos alongside the Ecuadorans, was upset not just at the low wages and dangerous conditions, but at the effort to silence everyone. "In a non-union job, you can't say anything," he fumed. Siemak was the first to be fired -- he and a Polish coworker wrote a leaflet urging everyone to get organized, and handed it out at lunch. When the Ecuadorans saw that, they got scared. But it didn't take long before they too were angry enough to act. A month later, Ortega and Arruda wrote their own leaflet and handed it out. Days later, they too were told there was no more work for them. "We did for the other people here," Arruda says. "We knew someday someone would do it for us."

That transfer of experience from one group of immigrants to another is one reason why the Laborers Union has been able to rebuild its ranks. In the early 1980s, most asbestos contractors had union agreements, and were paying wages over $30 an hour. At the end of the decade, they tore the agreements up, cut wages, and began hiring the Poles.

These new workers, however, began organizing their own union almost immediately, the Hazardous Waste Handlers Association. "But it wasn't strong enough to go up against the mafia, who ran the industry," remembers Pawel Kedzior, an asbestos stripper from those days. Workers organized independently because the union itself had long ties to the mob.

At the beginning of the 1990s, courts forced the union to clean itself up. The Laborers disbanded ten local unions in New York, and threw out its old leaders. Two new locals were organized, including one for asbestos workers. A new generation of organizers made an alliance with the Poles, and won new union contracts. Kedzior became the new union's president. Siemak was there. "I was one of the first guys to help organize the asbestos projects in 1996," he recalls. "I knew that a union would help us fight for our rights." He took that knowledge to work at Extreme, and although he was fired, he passed it along to the Ecuadorans. Other people like him have done the same on jobs throughout Long Island.

Extreme Building Services has not yet signed a union agreement, or complied with Judge Davis' decision. But the Laborers Union is growing anyway. A handful of new locals in New York and New Jersey have contracts with dozens of asbestos removal contractors. Over 3000 new members like Siemak, Ortega and Arruda have become union messengers in workplaces throughout New York City's urban periphery.

The union still fights in the courts, waiting for the lengthy legal process to unveil its uncertain protections. But organizer David Johnson says "we've learned that functioning on the ground, and depending on the activism of a new generation of workers, is a better answer to the fear of getting fired."

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