B   M   W   E
Karen Silkwood Remembered 1946--1974

by Tony Mazzocchi, Labor Party National Organizer

Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union member Karen Silkwood was killed 25 years ago on November 13, 1974

In the winter of 1972, members of OCAW Local 5-283 saw their strike broken by the Kerr McGee Company in Cimarron, Oklahoma. Out of 150 workers, only 20 remained in the union. Two years later, the company instigated a decertification campaign. It seemed certain that the OCAW local would be busted.

In August 1974, just months before the decert election was scheduled, Karen Silkwood was elected to the union's three-person bargaining committee, the first woman committee member in Kerr McGee's history. Karen's assignment was health and safety. Although she had only been at the company for two years, she was upset about what she viewed as abusive and dangerous conditions in the plant.

That September, Karen and her fellow committee members flew to Washington, D.C. where they met with me (then the union's legislative director) to develop a plan to defeat the decert effort. Karen described the company's appalling health and safety conditions. When I explained the connection between plutonium exposure and cancer, it took Karen by surprise. She was angered at how Kerr McGee was taking workers' lives into its own hands. She herself had been in a contaminated room without a respirator just two months before.

We decided we should make the company's health and safety record an issue in the campaign, and to educate workers about the hazards of plutonium.

The strategy worked: Although the union had begun with only 20 members, we beat back the decert effort by 80 to 61.

About a month later, November 13, Silkwood was on her way to meet with my assistant, Steve Wodka, and a New York Times reporter to deliver documents that proved her allegation that quality control of fuel rods had been compromised. Her car ran off the road, and she was killed. No documents were found in her car. Many of us believe her car was forced off the road, causing her death.

Karen Silkwood was a union martyr. Her experience was not that unusual in the trade union movement, except that she ultimately died for her cause. We must remember her story, because it is a symbol of the collective efforts and courage of the millions of trade unionists who have fought, and still fight, to defend the health, safety, and security of their fellow workers.

A poster commemorating Karen Silkwood is available for $10. Proceeds to benefit the Labor Party. To order, call 718-369-2998.

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