Crash: The Silkwood Story

A delegation of three arrived in Washington, DC, on September 26, 1974, eagerly seeking Mazzocchi's help. Jack Tice was shop chairman of the OCAW local union at the Kerr-McGee nuclear facility in Cimarron, Oklahoma, and Jerry Brewer was second in command. With them was a woman in her late twenties who recently had been elected to the bargaining committee. Her name was Karen Silkwood.

A Texas native, Karen had dropped out of college after marrying young. A few years later, she'd set off to Oklahoma in search of work, leaving three kids behind with her ex-husband. She soon landed a good-paying job as a laboratory analyst at the Cimarron plant—just before a strike. The granddaughter of a Texas oil worker and OCAW member, Silkwood threw herself into picket-line duty, taking up the union's cause. Bright and spirited—a child of the rebellious '60s, Texas-style—she walked into Mazzocchi's office in search of a cause.

She'd come to the right place.

But it was unusual that Silkwood and her two colleagues had come to meet with the union's legislative director at all. OCAW vice president Elwood Swisher, who was responsible for the union's atomic sector, did not approve of Mazzocchi's anti-corporate politics. So he kept Mazzocchi away from OCAW's atomic sector .

In fact, many atomic workers, and especially their leaders, didn't trust Tony's politics or his friends—like Ralph Nader and all those environmentalists. As civilian-soldiers of the national security state, most atomic workers were selected for qualities that put them at odds with the likes of a Mazzocchi. They had little use for his health and safety crusade. They were more inclined to unite with their employers against all critics.

But by the 1970s, dozens of civilian atomic power plants had come online, and hundreds more were in the works. More and more of OCAW's nuclear workers—people who mined and refined uranium and made nuclear fuel rods—came from the civilian side of the industry, where the work culture was less militaristic. They were more open to Mazzocchi's ideas. And they needed all the help they could get from the union, since they faced harsh conditions, ruthless employers, and lax government oversight.

Nowhere were conditions crueler than at Kerr-McGee's facilities in the Southwest, which employed mostly Mexican American uranium miners. Steve Wodka glimpsed these conditions during an epic struggle in Grants, New Mexico, in 1973:

In '73 there was this long, horrific strike by Kerr-McGee uranium miners in New Mexico. OCAW ran big spreads in the union paper. And to me—you know, I was twenty-two, twenty-three years old—it looked just like The Salt of the Earth. The same Chicano workers, up against the big company, under terrible conditions. I mean, Kerr-McGee was brutal. It was a violent, brutal strike.

The seven hundred workers at Kerr-McGee's uranium mines and mills walked out after the company tried to break the union by removing the grievance procedure, seniority rights, and job security protections. Eighty percent of the strikers were Mexican Americans; another seven percent were Native Americans .

The local union president, Margarito Martinez, believed that Kerr-McGee's attack was payback for the union's drive for better health and safety conditions. Martinez himself had testified at government hearings calling for stricter radioactive exposure limits to halt the growing epidemic of lung cancer among uranium miners. Others speculated that the company forced a strike over workers' seniority and job security protections so it could rid itself of older, overexposed workers before they were diagnosed with cancer, saddling the company with their expensive health care costs.

A year before the Grants conflict, Kerr-McGee had instigated another strike at a small, isolated plant that Mazzocchi hadn't heard of—a new facility in Cimarron, Oklahoma. The Cimarron plant produced fuel rods containing plutonium pellets for use in an experimental fast-flux (breeder) reactor. Proponents hoped such breeder reactors would produce endless quantities of plutonium for both nuclear devices and civilian atomic power plants.

Kerr-McGee planned to take advantage of this bonanza, and did not want a union at its new fuel rod production plant to get in the way. So the company tried to rip up the contract with the 150 Cimarron workers.

The company's founding partner Bob Kerr, who died in 1963, had been a governor and influential US senator from Oklahoma. Kerr was infamous for having his hand in every conceivable government and industry cookie jar and for cheerfully channeling money and contracts to his state, his friends, and himself. Along the way, he and his partner, Dean McGee, known for his prowess in finding oil, turned their little exploration company into a mammoth energy combine with interests in coal, uranium, natural gas, timber, and chemicals. By the 1970s, Kerr-McGee was the largest private-sector uranium producer in the world.

In sparsely populated Oklahoma, it was the world. And yet there in the middle of a “right-to-work” state (where workers did not have to join the union even if a majority voted in favor of it), workers unionized. In 1972, 100 of the Cimarron plant's 150 workers voluntarily paid dues to the union. And in that year, they decided to strike over poor working conditions. Unfortunately, the company had no problem finding farm boys and girls willing to cross the picket lines. By the end of the strike, the union was barely breathing: Only twenty dues-paying members remained under contract, a contract literally written by Kerr-McGee.

For the company, busting the strike was only a first step. Managers began working behind the scenes to entice workers to sign a petition calling for a decertification election to eliminate the union.

In 1974, Swisher reversed his long-held policy of keeping Mazzocchi and Wodka at bay. “He paid for this committee from the Cimarron local to come to DC—and that began the episode,” Mazzocchi said. “Swisher must have figured it was a loser. Otherwise, he would never let us get near a nuclear plant. ”

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