Monday, February 27, 2006

The Passing Of Tom Barrett

This is from James August, who runs AFSCME's health and safety program. I knew Tom when I was at AFSCME. It was people like him who made all of the endless struggles seem worthwhile.
Late last night I checked my email and read a message informing me of the death of Tom Barrett the previous day. Tom was a carpenter at the University of Maryland – College Park Campus and a member of AFSCME Local 1072. He died at the age of 61 from complications due to his exposure to asbestos at work.

I am deeply and profoundly saddened by Tom’s passing. Even though he has had asbestosis for many years, it is still a shock. Tom made a HUGE impact on me. Tom's courage, persistence, dedication, intelligence, commitment and humanity were an inspiration for me. When he became aware that he was being exposed to asbestos and the consequences of that exposure, he became active and would not be turned away. He went through many hours of union health and safety training and absorbed everything. More importantly, he applied his experience and knowledge in unwavering fashion. He probably was not aware of how much he taught me and others. Tom became an employer’s worst nightmare. He was relentless in his determination to change the way his employer disregarded the health of its workers – and he was effective. He became the local union’s health and safety chair, and later served as Vice President. In his understated and unassuming way he fought back for himself and for others, whether it was regarding asbestos, other safety and health issues, or concerns about basic fairness on the job. It is through the efforts of Tom and people like him that we make progress in trying to safeguard worker and public health, bring a measure of decency, and advance social justice in our workplaces and society. Tom’s death is a reminder of the steep price that workers pay in this country and elsewhere for any slight improvements that are made.

After reading the email I stayed up and watched a videotape from the 1991 OSHA Asbestos Rulemaking and watched the case that we presented on behalf of AFSCME. Tom was one of three AFSCME workers that testified, along with doctors Phil Landrigan and Christine Oliver, in support of a building inspection requirement and stricter equipment, procedures, training, and other measures to prevent exposure to asbestos, particularly for custodians, building maintenance, other service workers and occupants. I watched Tom present his story - soft spoken but firm and clear - in which he described how he and so many others were needlessly exposed to and harmed by asbestos. Tom didn’t have to be loud to be heard. His actions were even more convincing.

I will miss Tom greatly. So many that never even knew him will also.