Bernie Banton, working-class hero

by

Phil Sandford

Bernie Banton was a man of principle and a fighter for justice and his state funeral at Olympic Park on December 5 did him proud.

Thousands of people from a wide variety of backgrounds listened as family members, religious leaders and politicians paid their respects to the man who had become the public face of the fight for asbestos victims.Family members spoke warmly about Bernie’s life, his humour and his determination to fight until the end.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he had spent an hour chatting with Bernie during the election campaign and had walked out inspired. He said that Bernie had asked him to acknowledge that the campaign for justice for victims of asbestos-related diseases would not have been possible without the trade unions.

Premier Morris Iemma and newly elected federal Labor MP Greg Combet also spoke movingly about the contribution Bernie had made.

Bernie’s coffin was carried out of the stadium to the applause of the crowd and a rousing three cheers from the union honour guard outside.

From 1968 to 1974 Bernie worked at a James Hardie insulation plant in Sydney, and in 1999 he was diagnosed with asbestosis, followed last year by a diagnosis of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that causes a painful death.

Bernie became a tireless fighter for compensation for victims of asbestos diseases, in a campaign that led to James Hardie setting up a $4 billion compensation fund, which will largely be used to provide palliative medication to dying victims of the asbestos industry.

He was one of a long line of fighters for asbestos compensation, as one of James Hardies’ tactics has been to outwait dying compensation victims.

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