Asbestos. The mere mention of asbestos will trigger an immediate response to deal with this serious Health and Safety issue. But this was not always the case. It was in the late 1980’s that the Union became aware of the extent of asbestos issues in our workplaces and it all began with a blatant and intentional violation of the Health and Safety Act.
At the time, Ian Whitaker was working at Westdale High School and his duties included installing new insulating material in the rear doors of the boilers. This material arrived in 4’x 8′ boxes. The material required that it be cut to size and installed in the doors. The boxes themselves had clearly at one time been labelled, but these labels had all been peeled off; except, someone missed a single label. This one label indicated that the product within the box was hazardous, and that protective suits and HEPA masks were required when working with the material. Ian cut out the label and brought it to the attention of the Union. This triggered an immediate investigation. The Union discovered that asbestos was present in many areas of our schools and a meeting was convened with senior Board officials. The Union laid out their concerns and offered to work with the Employer to come up with viable solutions to this serious Health and Safety concern. The response we received was shocking. We were told that there were no asbestos issues in our workplaces. At the time, we could not believe what we were hearing, but their response became very clear to us over the course of the next several months. Our schools were loaded with asbestos! It was in the boilers, on pipes, in floor tiles, in desks, in tunnels, above ceiling tiles and in the tiles themselves, and most disturbing of all…in air plenums. No wonder the Employer did not want to admit they had a problem. The cleanup was going to cost millions for our Board alone. Apparently, money was more important than human lives. Not just CUPE members, but every child, every teacher and every other support worker meant nothing to them. Thus, began the hardest and most contentious battle this Local has ever faced. For us, the lives of our members and all those who learn and work in our schools are not defined by dollars and cents. They are priceless!
So we fought…and we never gave up. We fought the Employer, and we fought the Ministry who did not want to enforce clear regulations outlined in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. We fought this battle in the press. We educated our members and the public with the mountains of evidence that we found in all our schools. We took pictures, videos and samples. We compiled irrefutable evidence that we were all at risk. The fight spilled over into other Boards. There were wholesale walkouts of students and teachers in the Toronto Board. Parents pulled their children out of schools. Slowly but surely, we were winning. Our Employer was forced to establish the first inhouse Asbestos Response Team in the province of Ontario. Other Boards began to clean up their schools as well. Our Local and every other Local in the province owes a great deal of thanks to the people on the front lines who fought this difficult and lengthy battle. Gerry McDonnel, Jackie Robinson, Dave Ward and so many others too numerous to mention. We would be remiss if we did not give special thanks to Jackie Robinson, who died of asbestosis, which she likely contracted investigating asbestos exposures in our workplaces. She paid the ultimate price to protect our Sisters and Brothers!
So where are we today? Our schools are much safer and there are very specific protocols to deal with asbestos. Where it has not been removed, it is clearly inventoried. But we cannot let our guard down. The recent downsizing of our inhouse Hazardous Materials Department should cause all of us concern. We fought once before, and if necessary, we will fight again. This Local took on one of the greatest challenges this province has ever seen and we won. Everyone who enters a school facility within our Board is safer because of our commitment to what is right. We will continue to face challenges we must overcome. We are members of one of the greatest CUPE locals in the province!