Hazardous Labor

Ethnic Rivalry and Democratic Debate in a Union of Immigrants

Nothing illustrates just how messy democracy can be like a good old-fashioned internal union fight. And the bitter rift that has erupted within the 2,000-member union representing the city's asbestos removal workers is a prime exhibit.

There, an angry split over leadership and ethnic loyalties led to a bitter election contest last summer in which incumbent officials narrowly defeated a slate of insurgents. The challengers cried foul and succeeded in getting scores of local political officials, including several congressmembers, to sign letters asking for an inquiry into the matter. Soon after, a union monitor nullified the election, citing improprieties. Now, both sides are gearing up for a new vote to be held in late January.

But the local's wrenching internal battle isn't all bad news. For one thing, it involves recent immigrants often too concerned about their own legal status to get involved in political battles; for another, it is taking place in a new union, one carved out of one of the city's toughest industries. Less than a decade ago there was no union to fight over, no membership to appeal to, no contract terms to debate. Local 78 of the Asbestos, Lead and Hazardous Waste workers didn't even exist until 1996 when it emerged from a court-supervised cleanup of the once mob-ridden Laborers union.

Asbestos removal is among the hardest, dirtiest, and most dangerous of construction tasks, and until Local 78 was organized, virtually all of the work was done non-union, even in Manhattan, where trade unions dominate major construction projects. Workers were often sent into job sites without proper training and lacking basic protective equipment. The companies that hired them were prone to be fly-by-night operators who plucked their employees off street corners and who would frequently fade away before a job was completed, leaving workers unpaid and out of luck.

This started to change after energetic organizers, taken from the ranks as well as from other laborers' locals, began signing up members—worker by worker—at the city's largest firms. It was a mission conducted in several languages: Roughly half of the city's asbestos workers are from Poland and other Eastern European countries; the rest are mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central and South America.

The new union has grown from a dozen contractors signed to collective bargaining agreements to more than 100. In addition, the Mason Tenders District Council, the umbrella organization for the city's laborers' unions, wielded its clout to get the city's biggest builders to agree to use only union asbestos handlers on their projects.

The result is a now largely unionized industry providing wages and benefits that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Current wages are $25.50 per hour with employer contributions of $7.05 per hour in benefits that provide a medical plan and pension. A new four-year contract agreed to last month will increase those rates by 22 percent. The business is still plagued by shady firms that pay low wages and cut corners on safety, people in the industry say, but those companies have been mostly forced to the margins.

"We started with less than 800 members. Workers were making $8 or $10 an hour—in cash. We've come a long ways and we're proud of that," said Sal Speziale, the local's business manager.

Success, however, has also spurred debate about how the local should be run. This year, Speziale and the union's other top incumbent official, secretary-treasurer Pawel Kedzior, were challenged by a slate led by a popular former business agent named Edison Severino, who was fired after he complained that Hispanics weren't getting fair representation within the local.

In the June election, Severino's slate lost narrowly, by about 100 votes. The challengers contested the results with the parent national laborers' union, complaining of election violations. To help, the challengers hired a law firm, Kennedy, Schwartz & Cure, which frequently represents union dissidents. They also signed up a veteran union organizer named Eddie Kay, who has worked with the health care workers' Local 1199, the Transport Workers Union, and others. Over the summer, Kay helped the challengers collect more than 80 letters from local elected officials urging union leaders to consider complaints about the old election. The letter writers included eight congressional representatives, four borough presidents, and 16 state senators. When union district council officials reacted angrily to what they claimed was an improper intervention in their internal affairs, several of the letter writers backed off, saying they had been misled. But the letters apparently had an effect.

Several weeks after they were sent, the union's elections officer issued a 34-page report ordering a new vote. While dismissing most of the charges, the officer ruled that the local had improperly failed to share a list of job sites with the challengers. The rerun election is now slated for January 30 and 31.

Severino, who is Dominican and who is challenging Speziale for the post of business manager, said he was hired by the union in 1996 to help bring in Spanish-speaking workers. "I was the first and only Latino in the union," he said. "I tried to tell Sal and others that a lot of Hispanics felt underrepresented, that they weren't getting a fair deal."

He said the local used a double standard in appointing the stewards, allowing non-English-speaking Poles to handle the positions, but denying the appointments to Hispanics who didn't speak English. Severino said his criticisms got a chilly response from local officials, and earlier this year he was fired. The firing led to several rallies by supporters of Severino outside the District Council office (Severino said hundreds of protesters showed up; council officials insisted there were only a couple of dozen). An effort by council officials and national union executives to patch things up failed, and the two sides squared off for elections in June. According to Severino and his allies, several of the challengers immediately ran into trouble on their jobs.

Elena Corrales, who had worked in the waste removal industry since 1989 and ran on the insurgent "United Immigrants" slate, claimed she was fired from her asbestos job soon after she became a candidate. Jorge Nacipucha said that after he took part in a protest against Severino's firing, he was told by local officials that he wouldn't be dispatched to new jobs if he continued. He said he had only managed to work a few weeks since then.

Some Eastern European members who backed Severino claimed they got the same treatment. Kazik Prosniewski, a native of Poland and a business agent since 1996, said he decided to run on the challengers' slate because of what he called a lack of internal democracy in the union. Prosniewski said he was fired from his job soon after the election, a move he had expected since he was an appointee. But he said he has also been fired five times since then from jobs as an asbestos handler. "I have all my licenses and my papers," Prosniewski said. "One supervisor called to me, he knows I am a good handler. He said, 'I am sorry I cannot help you.' "

Marek Truskolaski, who also ran on the insurgent slate, said he had also been told by supervisors that he couldn't work for them. "They said they didn't want to get in trouble," he said.

District Council officials declined to comment on the dispute, saying it is an internal election. But they said it would not be unusual for members to be out of work because of the poor economy.

Speziale scoffed at the claims of political retribution. "We would never do something like that," he said. Severino, he said, had caused his own firing by repeatedly attacking Kedzior and himself at board meetings.

"This is ridiculous we are having this re-election," said Speziale. "We did everything open and honest, everything was done right. We ran a positive campaign. They had a dirty campaign. They ran on lies, their objective was to divide the membership."

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