The Feather Merchants and the betrayal of workers' trust

Dan Rodricks

March 18, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

At the nation's largest asbestos-related injury trial, Matthew Leaf, a retired steamfitter, told the story of the Feather Merchants. They followed him wherever he went.

Every working day of his life -- at times seven days a week, 12 hours a day -- Leaf went deep inside the industrial landmarks of a bygone bustling Baltimore -- inside the Liberty ships at the old Fairfield Shipyard, inside the massive mills at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant. He fit pipe at Maryland Cup, and at Davison Chemical. Even when his job took him to a more bucolic place, a convent and college in the hills of Western Maryland, Leaf worked underground, fitting pipe through nearly a mile of tunnel to connect a boiler room to all the campus buildings it served.

And the Feather Merchants followed him everywhere.

"We installed the pipes that was on the job," Leaf told the jury yesterday morning in Baltimore Circuit Court. "They would come in after us and cover the pipes with asbestos. We called them Feather Merchants. They would come [with] scaffolding and ladders . . . and they applied blocks [of asbestos product] or half-rounds, and sealed it all with canvas."

As the insulators worked, cutting, shaping and sometimes beating the asbestos around the pipes that Matthew Leaf and his brother, Lawrence, fit into place, white dust filled the air they breathed.

"It'd be floating around," Leaf said. "That's why they'd be called Feather Merchants."

It was the same routine at almost every job, from the war years at Fairfield Shipyard, through the late 1940s and 1950s at the big steel mills at Bethlehem Steel, through all the other jobs that the Leaf brothers had until the early 1980s. They fit pipe; other workmen covered the pipe. Day in, day out.

And no one ever told them about the dangers of working around asbestos.

That was Matthew Leaf's testimony, which was interrupted only when he coughed heavily or stopped to hold back tears. It was the mention of his brother, Lawrence, that made Matthew Leaf pause. They had both worked long and hard, planning through most of their adult lives to retire and operate a nursery. "He loved his flowers," Matthew Leaf said of Lawrence.

But Lawrence Leaf died in 1986 of cancer. Matthew Leaf has asbestosis. He was diagnosed in 1982. The Leaf brothers' story is one of a handful that will be told, medical histories and all, during the first phase of this huge trial in Baltimore. Thirteen companies, insulation manufacturers and distributors, are named as defendants. The plaintiffs are more than 8,500 people, like the Leafs, who claim they've suffered because of exposure to asbestos, many of them in shipyards and steel mills.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs claim the insulation industry knew of the dangers of asbestos long ago. The companies counter that only through hindsight is it possible to see that the old safety standards for asbestos exposure were wrong. It's not what we know now, they say, it's what we knew then, and "then" was the era of Matthew and Lawrence Leaf, just two of thousands of men who worked innocently among the Feather Merchants.

It was really an era before we dared to question authority much at all, a time when Americans who had survived the Depression and World War II still trusted government and the corporate establishment. It was an America that hadn't been advised of the evils -- indeed, it had been sold the wonders -- of cigarette smoking. It was an America that had been told that lots of smokestacks represented economic progress, that DDT was a wonder pesticide, that bigger automobiles were better and probably safer, that lead-based paint was the wise homeowner's choice, that asbestos was the way to go for insulation. This case in Baltimore is not just about payback for the old sins of a particular industry; it's about big business accepting responsibility for a pattern of deceit, passive or active, that left millions of Americans feeling betrayed.

Though he never made such an assertion of betrayal, Matthew Leaf made the case through the telling of his story and that of his brother.

As he sat on an elevated witness stand and described the work he and Lawrence did in the bellies of ships and mills, he came across as a quiet and sincere man, a smart and dependable worker who took pride in his job. The image of a plain-speaking, blue-collar craftsman with a life of hard-core physical labor behind him contrasted poignantly with the three dozen younger, well-dressed law school grads gathered around him to note his every word.

As Leaf spoke, three video monitors and a projection screen showed the list of jobs he and his brother had between 1942 and 1972. He remembered each of them clearly: Pipe-fitting in the ships under construction at Fairfield, in the hot-strip mills and blast furnaces at Sparrows Point. And all the time the Feather Merchants were there, he said, and no one ever told him their white dust was dangerous. He just did what he was told. He just did his job.

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