Bernie Banton, working-class fighter


Bernie Banton, the widely-recognised face of the legal and political campaign to achieve compensation for the many sufferers of asbestos-related conditions, which they contracted after working for the James Hardie company, died on November 27, at the age of 61.

I met Bernie in the Emu Plains Sporting Club on March 5 at the joint NSW Teachers Federation Nepean Association and Public Service Association launch of the Your Rights At Work Campaign for the federal seat of Lindsay. He was there to officially launch the fight against the Howard government's Work Choices laws. It was fitting that he lived long enough to see Howard and his government fall, for he played a vital part, along with tens of thousands of unionists, in this outcome.

But his death, along with those of ten of thousands of other victims of asbestos, is a bloody evil crime. The mesothelioma that finally took Bernie's life used to be commonly misdiagnosed as stomach cancer, even though US insurances companies have known about the lethal nature of asbestos since 1918. .

This angered Bernie. Hee said of his negotiations with James Hardie management: "I think what I brought to the table was a humanity that they couldn't deal with. I was so cranky with their attitude, that all they were doing was trying to minimise and put into numbers the hurt that they had [inflicted]... they were representing the company that had the technology to [do] away with asbestos, and yet they chose to continue to use asbestos till '87. I don't think there is any forgiveness for that, because they killed thousands more Australians...

"The figures about people with asbestos-related disease, early in the fight were assessed at, by university figures from Western Australia, that 53,000 more people, by 2020, would be affected with an asbestos-related disease — 13,000 of those people would die of mesothelioma. So we're talking tens of thousands of people being affected."

Bernie's death followed one of his brothers, who also died from asbestos-caused disease. Two other brothers had respiratory illnesses. The James Hardie factory where Bernie worked from 1968 to 1974 was one where fathers and sons and brothers all working together — all being exposed to deadly asbestos microscopic fibres.

Bernie was one of the "Snowmen", so called because they were covered in the white dust of asbestos from head to toe. If they didn't use an air hose to blow the dust off, all you would see of them was the colour of their retinas.

It is fitting that Bernie receives a state funeral, for he was the very public face of the campaign for justice for asbestos victims. We should remember what he said of the grief and hardship that had been caused to him and all the other victims of James Hardie's greed — that he'd been "dragged through a pit of hell by a mob of bottom feeders".

We should remember and commemorate his life for the moral and physical courage he displayed to all by challenging one of the biggest and most powerful corporations in Australia.

For Bernie Banton's funeral, assemble at Olympic Station, Homebush 9.30am on Wednesday, December 5. All welcome.