Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International
Union member Karen Silkwood was killed 25 years ago on November
Silkwood: Union Martyr. (Art: Nick
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, on November 17, 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.
— Tony Mazzocchi
A poster commemorating Karen Silkwood
(incorporating the illustration above) is available for $10.
Proceeds to benefit the Labor Party. To order, call 718-369-2998.