Banning Asbestos – The Personal & the Political

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For the Day of Mourning on April 28th, a broad coalition of asbestos victims and family members, labour, health, environmental and NGO organizations have banded together to call for a ban on asbestos in Canada. Under the umbrella, “Ban Asbestos Canada”, the coalition is calling for a comprehensive strategy to address the lethal legacy of asbestos.  Examples of strategic initiatives would be looking into early detection, increased research, improved screening and safe disposal/removal of asbestos.
Linda Reinstein, the co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) in the U.S., is involved in these discussions as she sees a connectivity between Canada and the U.S. on banning asbestos.  Reinstein says,
“For decades, the U.S. bought chrysotile asbestos from Canada. We’ve seen the callous profiteers, miners and users, profiting over people.”

However, Reinstein says she’s hesitant to use the word ‘ban’ because it sounds like such a simple solution to an extremely complex, layered issue.  From exposures in the workplace, schools, and hospitals and to volunteers helping with natural disasters, asbestos is a ubiquitous problem which must look at prohibiting use and imports, establishing medical programs, outreach and education and workers’ safety programs for those working in contaminated buildings, Reinstein adds.

“I want to stop the import; we’re still importing asbestos since the 1900s which is horrific.  Over the last 150 years, we have consumed over 31 million metric tonnes, 31 million metric tonnes. That’s huge and that means it remains in building, in schools, communities, you know, we have a long legacy of asbestos issues.”

The knee-jerk reaction to banning asbestos, once known as the “magic mineral”, is that it’s the only economically viable option.  As Linda mentions, this notion is a complete fallacy: “It’s manageable when you do ban asbestos.  You know, there are economically viable substitutes, there’s implementation programs.  Countries do not falter and waver on the brink of bankruptcy because they banned asbestos.  So we need to get that notion out of people’s minds.”

To battle this misconception, the Ban Asbestos Canada campaign has pointed to the 56 other countries who have banned the use, exportation and importation of asbestos, such as the UK, France, Australia, Japan and Germany.  In its place, the coalition is asking for a safe substitute, which could simultaneously create Canadian jobs.  For example, manufacturing asbestos-free brake pads that are already being fashioned in Guelph, Ontario.

Linda Reinstein’s Story

For Linda Reinstein, the political is personal.  Linda’s husband, Alan, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2003 and her advocacy started shortly after.

Prior to being diagnosed, Linda said that Alan experienced the classic nine months of misdiagnosed symptoms, with no clear diagnosis of what was causing his pleural effusion.  The experience was an emotional roller coaster: “Alan went through these tests and he would get ‘negative, negative’, we were jubilant thinking ‘oh great, it’s not cancer, it’s not this, it’s not that’ but we didn’t realize the false negative was so high. So we felt we did all the right stuff in our lives and then unbeknownst to us, Alan was suffering from an aggressive, terminal disease.”

While Linda can’t be sure, she says that his diagnosis was probably a combination of occupational and non-occupational cancer as he worked in home repairs (e.g. with stucco walls) and in a shipyard in the 60s as a metallurgical engineer.

When asked who she directed her anger towards, Linda responds, “My anger was sort of widely distributed. I was angry at the government, I was angry at the manufacturers who make products, I was angry at the employers who bought those products…This manmade disaster has been caused by over 100 years of time, and frankly, ignorance. I was angered by many different aspects of asbestos: I wanted my life back, I wanted Alan’s life back, I wanted my daughter’s life back. But I always say, there’s no rewind button in life.  I had to accept my new normal and do the best I can to take care of my husband who was very ill and be the best mom I could be.”

Instead of being consumed by her anger, Linda turned her anger into action by co-founding the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

“ADAO was actually borne out of pain, fear and anger.  The pain of having someone you love being diagnosed with a terminal yet preventable disease was overwhelming.  Alan was sixty-three and my daughter at the time was ten.  The fear of losing Alan and the fear of the unknown was huge. Would he ever work again? How long would he live? How would our lives change? Could we survive? And then the anger; the anger to know that all of this could have been prevented had Alan not worked or been exposed to asbestos.”

Linda started with a visit to Washington with her 11-year old daughter.  Senator Patty Murray was introducing a Bill to ban asbestos and Linda was determined to go.  As they waited in line for Starbucks and other places around Washington, Linda started to realize “that something was deeply wrong in our country because people would say ‘it happened to me, it happened to my family’ and then I was like ‘wait a minute, this isn’t that rare disease that I’ve been told, it’s just underreported.”

When she came home, Linda said she knew she needed to do something “fast and dramatic” Linda reflects back: “So I came home from LA, put on a baseball hat, went to a friend’s, we set up a website and I had no mission vision, financial planning, nothing, other than the feeling I knew I needed to do something.  That if I didn’t, mesothelioma would claim my life too, because I was really angry and I was so scared and I would cry in the garage, just turn off the lights and cry.  Like what do you do to help your family when your husband’s diagnosed? How do you do your homework with your child? I don’t know if anybody in your family has had cancer but it’s not just the patient; cancer impacts the entire family.”

Linda met Doug Larkin at Senator Murray’s briefing and they became instant friends. Doug was also feeling anger, as his father-in-law, Bill, had been diagnosed with mesothelioma.  Together, Doug and Linda cofounded ADAO, which takes a three-pronged approach to preventing asbestos-caused diseases:

  • Educate the public and medical community about asbestos-related diseases and preventing asbestos exposure. Support research that leads to early detection, prevention and a cure.
  • Collaborate with organizations around the world for a global asbestos ban. Raise awareness that asbestos is still legal and lethal in the U.S.
  • Unite asbestos victims to reduce isolation and strengthen community action through social networks and ADAO’s Share Your Story platform.

One of the biggest strengths of the campaign, in Linda’s mind, is the organization’s ability to blend social media advocacy and social media story-telling.  In order to get people to care, Linda says she has to be able to tell her own story, the story, a shared story so that people understand this is a real issue.  Linda says that when she started out, “I was a TEDx speaker in my community, I began testifying in front of Congress, I was able to share my story – when I say my story I mean a shared story, it’s not just Linda and Alan, it’s the Linda and Alan’s of the world.”

Now, the ADAO is the largest independent asbestos victims’ organization in the U.S., and has has shared stories from all across the U.S, and abroad from countries like Canada, Australia and South America.

“Asbestos victims find it cathartic and empowering to channel grief and anger through storytelling. We all want our stories to be heard, felt, remembered, and shared. As I like to think, sharing makes us stronger,” says Linda.

For those whose lives are impacted by asbestos, Linda says the most important approach is not to lose hope – there isn’t a cure yet but there are improved treatments and communities where they can give and receive support, such as the ADAO.

Linda says, “Every person who I’ve asked for help has extended their hand. Even if they didn’t understand or maybe they didn’t feel it was the issue they were really passionate about – every person has helped me along this journey. It’s amazing.  People understand that it’s health, it’s safety, it’s basic human rights, it’s a disaster that never should’ve happened.”

For more information on the ADAO please visit: http://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/

Widows of the Workers: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

SEIU Healthcare Healthaholic Blog Widows of Workers

The following blog post has been written by Natasha Luckhardt, a community activist who is passionate about improving the lives of widows of occupational disease. While Natasha is a researcher at SEIU Healthcare who often focuses on OHS issues for the union, this particular passion project is independent from the organization.

The National Day of Mourning, which honours workers who have been killed on the job, falls on April 28th. From April 1st to April 28th, I will be raising funds for a documentary about widows of asbestos.

While there are many of these widows, this film will focus on the widows who have lost their husbands to occupational cancer at General Electric (GE) in Peterborough, Ontario.

Sandy LeBeau is one of these widows.

“My girls were 15 and 17 years old when they lost their dad and five years before that, they sat at the table for supper when he said the chemicals will kill him,” explains Sandy LeBeau.

Her husband, Ron LeBeau, worked at the GE plant in Peterborough for 20 years.  Along with many other employees in the plant, Ron was exposed to various hazardous, degenerative and lethal chemicals, including asbestos. He had that discussion with his daughters and wife right after he read the WHMIS report in the 1980s, which revealed the potentially lethal effect of the many chemicals he worked with at GE.

Over the years, Ron LeBeau watched as his coworkers passed away as a result of cancer or other acute illnesses – many of whom were under 50.

After Ron LeBeau’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with asbestosis after working in a manufacturing plant in Northern Ontario, his sister advised Ron to ‘get out of there.’ But it was too late.

Ron died of stomach cancer within three months after being diagnosed. He was only 39 years old.

It has been 20 years since Sandy LeBeau filed for compensation on her husband’s behalf and she has not received a cent.

Sandy was one of the 700 workers and widows who showed up at an occupational health intake clinic in Peterborough to investigate whether or not their cancer or her husband’s cancer was due to asbestos or exposure to other chemicals. 230 of the 700 filed for compensation. To date, only 107 of these workers have received it.

Since their husbands have been silenced by occupational cancer, the widows are the ones who are left behind to tell the details of the asbestos-ridden clothing their husband would come home in. They remember how their husband always had a varnish all over his body that you could smell even after he had showered. They recall how their husband’s shoes were tainted blue from the chemicals and white from the asbestos.

Like Sandy LeBeau, the widows are also the ones who can speak to the history of the “Electric City” as Peterborough was coined in its manufacturing glory; the dynamics of spending their whole lives in a town whose industry both kept the city going, and made the people sick.

They could also tell you that the GE property is now a ghost town. It used to employ 6,000 workers in the 1960s and 1970s, but it now runs with a much smaller staff of around 600-1,500 people.

They are also the ones who, after losing their husbands, have lost their battle with the compensation system or who, after 20 years, have still not received a final response either way.

And yet, their lives have not been overcome with pure grief; they still laugh, they cry, they reminisce and they remember. Sandy says she talks about her husband every day.

The goal of this documentary is for people to know about Sandy’s husband, the workers, the widows, the community and especially about asbestos. Asbestos is often seen as a relic of the past and I want to show that this toxic chemical is still very much alive and is having a grave impact in communities, such as Peterborough.

The documentary will talk about the history of asbestos, or what was known as the “magic mineral”, the conflicting dynamics of people who worked for a company to earn a living but were exposed to this poisonous dust, the head-spinning nature of the compensation system and the metallic odour that was always lingering around the manufacturing plants in Peterborough and staining the houses around it.

I’ll also be interviewing widows who were compensated, as well as workers who are still fighting cancer and trying to obtain some form compensation at the same time.

It won’t be all sadness, though. I’ve interviewed these people before and their strength, wit and presence is inspirational and I want to share their stories with the world.

April 28th is The National Day of Mourning and this year, the Canadian Labour Congress has announced that asbestos will be the main theme raised. Simultaneously, there is a “Ban Asbestos Canada” movement on behalf of labour and other organizations for a comprehensive ban on asbestos and I want to add my voice and the workers’ voices to this movement.

Any help that you can give – money*, advice, your expertise – to share these stories would truly mean so much.

To keep the momentum going, I’ll be releasing a few short videos leading up to April 28th, highlighting issues such as the extent of their husband’s exposures in the plant, their experience with the WSIB system and the socioeconomic and emotional impact of their loss.

#settlethedust #voicesforwidows #widowsofworkers #widowsofasbestos #banasbestoscanada

*The money will be going towards hiring people for audio, filming and editing.  I won’t be taking any of the money for myself as I’ll be contributing to the documentary as well. The budget is based off of the bare minimum for starting a small documentary project, based on conversations with people in the film industry.

N.L.

Equal Pay Day? – Beacause it’s 2016!

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This year, the Equal Pay Coalition cites April 19 as Equal Pay Day to demonstrate that women must work the equivalent of 15.5 months to earn the same average salary of every man. Women earn less than men in just about every part of the globe. Sexism is one reason. But there are many other variables to consider. Some researchers have noticed women who hold the same education levels as men seem to work less hours than men.

Despite all the gains the women’s movement has made over the past 50 years, the pay gap between men and women is still very large. While estimates vary, the Globe and Mail found that Canadian women may earn as little as 69 cents compared to every dollar a man makes.

Why is there such a big difference between amount of money men and women earn? In a legal framework, women are fully equal to men in the eyes of the law. It is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire, discipline, terminate, deny training, demote, fail to promote or harass someone on the basis of their gender.

Men’s attitudes towards working women has changed considerably over the last 80 years. In a poll conducted in Canada in 2010, 80% did not agree with the statement “a women’s place is in the home.” Back in 1936, only 18% disagreed with this statement. In 1967, it was 56%. Women have also made up the majority of students in Canadian universities since 1991. In 1971, women made up only 32% of Canadian university students.

The more education a woman has, the smaller the pay gap. The pay gap for women who are enrolled in professional careers is much smaller in comparison to men and women who hold non-professional or “blue collar” occupations. BUT THERE IS STILL A GAP!

Age is also a factor. In Great Britain, there is very small wage gap between men and women under the age of 30. But things start to change once women get older. Women who begin to have children and start a family are more likely to work in a job that has less hours and more flexible hours. A highly qualified doctor, after having a child, will be more likely to start a family practice than work in the emergency ward in a downtown hospital. A highly qualified lawyer who works in the city’s top corporate law firm who works 90 hour weeks will be more likely to find a job at a company and serve as their in-house counsel.

A group of students at Ryerson University conducted a study to see if there is a difference between the number of hours worked between men and women. Data was pulled from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, which was published in December 2015. The research team compared the number of hours worked between 31,000 men and 29,000 women. The researchers discovered men on average worked six hours more than women do in a week. Men worked 39 hours compared to women who worked only 33 hours. However this discrepancy in hours based on gender cannot always be attributed to choice – in some cases a full-time or 40 hour/week job is simply not an available option.

The findings in this project sheds some light on our understanding of the wage gap between men and women. Given that we have found that men on average work over 6 hours more per week than women (by choice or not), it may not be surprising that men, on average, also earn more than women. However, further research into why women work less than men would be insightful.

PSWs Are ‘Angels In The Fog’

Meet Bianca. She has a 75-year old father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. A growing number of his memories are lost in a fog which he can’t remember or locate anymore. That’s why Bianca is happy to know he is being cared for by a highly qualified team of Personal Support Workers (PSW)s to look after his daily needs in a nursing home located in a small community north of Toronto.

“They are there because they care.”

“The PSWs who care for him are always so friendly,” said Bianca. “They take their time with him, even though their conversations aren’t that coherent. Every PSW I have come across is genuine. They are there because they care. They always say hello to him. They always let me know how he is doing.”

Her father seems to be happy with the care he is receiving from the PSWs at the nursing home. He has a good rapport with them and has grown very close to them. She can tell just by the way he speaks and interacts with them.

Her father always loved music and especially dancing. One day, when the stereo system was playing some Motown music, he began to dance. A staff member took some photos and mailed them to Bianca. She posted the pictures on her fridge to remind her that he is being cared for by qualified healthcare professionals. He can still find little snippets of happiness in a world that is very confusing for him.

When she visits him, she watches the PSWs walk by and say hello. Everyone is very patient and it’s their second nature to acknowledge every resident.

“PSWs do this job with heart,” she added. “Anyone can walk into a job and just show up for a pay cheque. But PSWs are different. They do it because they enjoy their job. They come to work with love, care and compassion for their residents. It’s my biggest blessing.”

If you have an interesting story to share about a PSW, share your story on www.seiuhealthcare.ca/rise.

G.A.D.

“Unions. What are they good for?!”

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Here is an excerpt of a speech I delivered to a classroom filled with PSW students at George Brown College.

“Unions. What are they good for?!” I hear this a lot from people who think unions have outlived their purpose. A large minority of Canadians feel unions are not good for the economy. They believe organized labour had a role in the 19th century but they have outlived their purpose in today’s economy. Some even feel unionized workers are overpaid and lazy.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unions negotiate collective agreements that improve their working conditions. Unionized workers on average earn 30% more than non-unionized workers. They enjoy better pensions, improved medical and dental benefit plans, pensions, job security, and much more. Unionized employees are far more likely to belong to the middle class than their non-union counterparts.

Have unions outlived their purpose? Absolutely not. Many of us don’t even know about all the great things unions have done for us. Unions are responsible for creating a 5-day work week, an 8-hour day, a two-day weekend, outlawed child labour, introduced health and safety laws, a minimum wage, 2-week vacations, paid holidays, and much more. Many of us today simply take these things for granted. Many people don’t realize a strong labour movement is what stops these things from being taken away from us. Remember, it wasn’t Bay Street, Canada’s Fortune 500, big banks, or factory owners who fought for these things. It was unions.

Contrary to what people think, unions haven’t lost that much power over the past 50 years. 31.5% of Canadians workers belong to a union. That’s almost one-third of the Canadian labour force. And some unions are growing at a very fast rate. Take SEIU Healthcare for example. They have grown by 46% over the past 12 years. The union has expanded in nursing homes, homecare, retirement homes, hospitals and community services. In fact, SEIU Healthcare is one of the fastest growing unions in Ontario.

In the United States, unions have lost much of their power over the past 50 years. And it shows. Only 11% of workers are unionized. Did you know the Americans are not entitled to any paid vacation time? In Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, every paid worker has a right to at least four weeks of vacation. In America, companies are not required to provide any vacation time whatsoever. Companies usually provide vacation time, but there is no law requiring them to do so.

The American minimum wage is much lower too. In Ontario the minimum wage is $11.25. In the United States it’s $7.25. The good news however is that thanks to the efforts of SEIU International and other unions, many cities in the US have adopted the $15/hr minimum wage.

In individual states where unions are weak, employee salaries on average tend to be slightly lower than the Canadian average. Does that mean companies are saving money on labour costs? Managerial and executive salaries tend to be higher. In other words, unions don’t force companies to spend money on high wages they can’t afford. That money simply stays at the top.

Without a strong labour movement, Corporate Canada has a lot more power to take away the rights and freedoms Canadian employees have fought for over the past 150 years. Unions give employees a voice in their workplace – a voice that should never fall silent.