The story of asbestos is one of the most shameful in the annals of the American workplace. Long after manufacturers, their insurance companies and the federal government knew asbestos was a deadly poison, millions of workers were exposed to asbestos. As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers have or will develop serious disease, which in many cases is fatal.
For decades, the victims of asbestos poisoning have sought compensation for the terrible wrongs done to them and their families. With the help of their unions, many asbestos victims have received compensation through the legal system from asbestos manufacturers.
It has been clear since the Manville Industries bankruptcy that asbestos-related liability could exceed the assets of some asbestos manufacturers. In response, some in the labor movement, working together with lawyers for asbestos victims, have sought to enter into both class-action settlements and voluntary claims processing systems with asbestos manufacturers in order to lower the costs of getting compensation to victims.
While some asbestos manufacturers have been responsible participants in these efforts, other manufacturers have unfortunately sought to have laws passed that would limit their liability to their victims. The labor movement has successfully opposed laws designed to deny asbestos victims access to meaningful compensation that shut the doors of the courthouse to them.
However, the labor movement has long recognized that under current law and legal processes many asbestos victims are not being treated fairly or receiving fair and timely compensation. Some victims with early-stage asbestosis are settling their claims prematurely. Some victims who are dying from asbestos-related diseases are unable to get timely resolution of their cases.
At the same time, the burden of paying for the damage done by asbestos has driven many otherwise healthy firms into bankruptcy, with serious consequences for workers and communities dependent on those firms. The unpredictability of the current system has exacerbated these problems.
For all these reasons, the labor movement for years has been willing to engage in good-faith discussions with all interested parties to improve the asbestos compensation process while protecting the rights of asbestos victims. The AFL-CIO's participation in these discussions rests on certain principles the AFL-CIO believes must underlie any asbestos-related initiative:
· Anyone with physiological evidence of exposure to asbestos is a victim who deserves and should receive fair and timely compensation.
· While an administrative payments system may have benefits for some classes of asbestos victims, all those who suffer from such serious conditions as cancers, mesothelioma and advanced asbestosis must have unrestricted access to the courts. There should not be incentives for victims with early stages of asbestos-related diseases to give up their right to compensation should their conditions worsen.
· All those who have been exposed to asbestos should have access to affordable testing and monitoring. To the extent any asbestos-related initiative diminishes the incentive for the plaintiffs' bar to provide testing and monitoring, that initiative should also provide a replacement testing and monitoring system.
· The federal government played a significant role in the widespread use of asbestos, particularly in defense-related industries. The federal government should accept its share of the responsibility for the harm caused by the use of asbestos in the workplace.
· Any reform initiative should reduce the costs, delay and uncertainty involved in getting compensation to victims. No initiative should be a vehicle for asbestos defendants to relitigate issues that have effectively been resolved already in the courts.
· Any effort to address the problems in asbestos compensation should not be misused as a vehicle to enact corporate America's tort reform agenda.