Home / General / This Day in Labor History: April 14, 1975

This Day in Labor History: April 14, 1975


On April 14, 1975, the Bunker Hill Mining Company in Kellogg, Idaho announced a new policy in response to worries about female workers suffering reproductive problems due to lead exposure. The company decided to require sterilization of all women working in its smelter. This was a landmark moment in the history of women working in dangerous labor, particularly in traditionally all-male industries like mining.

Bunker Hill was founded in the late 1890s and became one of the nation’s largest producers of lead and zinc. Until 1943, women were not allowed to work in the lead smelter. That changed briefly because of World War II, but they were again banned in 1946. In the 1970s, Bunker Hill employed around 1600 people. Of them, nearly 100 were women. 22 worked in the lead smelter area. By the 1970s, Americans’ concern over lead poisoning, both on the job and in the nation at large had grown significantly. The nation was moving toward banning leaded gasoline and both environmentalists and some labor unions fought for greater restrictions on the exposure of working people to all sorts of toxic materials, especially lead.

Bunker Hill was a union mine, its workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America. But the USWA was not particularly comfortable with female members. In 1973, the EEOC, Department of Labor, and Department of Justice filed suit against the nation’s 9 largest steel companies and the USWA, charging them with discriminatory hiring practices that extended through the mills. That the union was at fault too is depressing, but on target with a lot of organized labor in traditionally male physically challenging work at this time. The settlement agreed to give $31 million in back pay to 40,000 women and minorities in the mills and to set hiring goals of 25% of supervisory positions and 50% of craft jobs going to women or minorities. Neither the union nor the companies really wanted this to happen. But the EEOC settlement reopened the lead smelter to women.

Bunker Hill’s response to the EEOC suit was to cloak itself in a fetal rights argument, simply banning most women from the job. The company stated publicly that it “is willing to be criticized for not employing some women–but not for causing birth effects.” What it was not willing to do was to limit exposure of all workers to lead. Effectively, Bunker Hill decided to define women primarily as childbearers and operate accordingly. But as ACLU lawyer Joan Bertin stated, the real reason was that companies didn’t want women working in these jobs because of beliefs they were less efficient and argued, “The price of safety cannot be the loss of civil and constitutional rights.”

Thus if women wanted to work in the lead smelter, they could. But the company wanted no responsibility for the poison the women would ingest. So they had to be sterilized. 29 women refused and were transferred to safer work that paid significantly less and reinforced the gender norms in the mill. At least three women did receive sterilization in order to keep their jobs.

The women at Bunker Hill turned to their union for help. The USWA refused to get involved. It said the fight would be too expensive. It claimed that fighting this would cause more problems for women throughout the steel industry. It also worried for the future of the mill as the industry was already declining in the United States.

The women then went to the Idaho Human Rights Commission. It developed a compromise allowing women to be paid the same rates as if they worked at the smelter. Both the company and women rejected this idea; the company because of the cost, the workers for the principle. The women then filed a suit with the EEOC in January 1976. EEOC endorsed the same compromise as the IHRC.

Too many unionists did not care much about this case, including USWA officials. On the other hand, Tony Mazzocchi, safety director for the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers and the most important figure in the union environmentalism of the 1970s and early 1980s, stated bluntly, “Ultimately, it will be quite clear that women and men alike suffer from exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals. When that happens, the industry initiative may be to have men sterilized. We will then enter the age of the neutered worker.”

OSHA stepped into this debate. President Carter’s OSHA was Eula Bingham, and as an advocate for both feminism as well as women’s rights, Bingham was furious at Bunker Hill’s sterilization policy. As she noted, no one suggested men should be banned from workplaces where toxic exposure might lead to their sterilization. It’s also likely that OSHA wanted to use Bunker Hill as an example in order to get companies to comply with its stricter national lead standard. In 1980, OSHA filed suit, fining Bunker Hill $82,000 for 108 occupational safety and health violations, including $10,000 for the sterilization policy. But after Reagan took the presidency in 1981, OSHA dropped the case. Reagan’s OSHA already stopped referring to it as a “sterilization policy,” instead calling it an “exclusionary policy,” a significant rhetorical move.

But even before Bingham became involved in fighting the broader problem of discrimination based upon defining women as childbearers, the Idaho women had accepted defeat. The EEOC offered the same compromise as the Idaho Human Rights Commission. The women accepted their higher wages, but future women would not have the opportunity for those high-paying jobs. Within weeks, companies including Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Firestone, General Motors, and AT&T all instituted similar programs that effectively excluded women from high-paying, dangerous work.

In the end, the women believed they had been victimized not only by their employer but by the USWA and the government. The union had done basically nothing for them. The EEOC did not want to get involved. Women in other dangerous trades would have to continue fighting for equal access to work, a fight that would continue well into the 1980s.

In 1979, the Labor Occupational Health Program made a film about lead exposure featuring this struggle. You can watch a chunk of it here. Pretty good stuff.

Although it is mentioned in several places, I don’t think there is a complete scholarly discussion of this event. I relied in part on Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America, which discusses the case for a few pages.

This is the 103rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Karen

    This is the kind of information I need when someone tells me the pay gap doesn’t exist because women only want lower-paying and easier jobs. When we try for harder and more dangerous jobs, labor and management agree that we shouldn’t have them.

    FWIW, I was in high school when this happened and followed what ther was to follow in the papers. I remember the unions’ worthlessness on women’s rights, which is why I never cared much for labor activists until recently.

    • JL

      “the unions’ worthlessness” is overstating it somewhat. By the mid-70s, both the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union and the Communications Workers of America had high-ranking women officers. By the late ’70s the CWA was holding conferences on getting the ERA ratified (and the American Nurses Association was pushing ratification heavily). OCAWU, as I state below, also actually helped women workers sue who were in a similar situation to the one in the OP. By the early ’80s the UFCW was having women’s rights conferences and AFSCME went on strike to fix pay gaps between their male and female workers (and AFSCME would continue to be a very pro-women union).

      Heck, the Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine workers held a conference on the unique problems faced by its women workers in 1949.

      And there were, of course, many women who were labor activists in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who were forming their own caucuses within bigger unions, like Chicago Women in the Trades, Washington Women in the Trades, and Tradeswomen Inc, and organizing within women-dominated jobs such as domestic work, flight attendants, nursing, clerical, and food services. Black women hospital workers in South Carolina struck in the late ’60s for better conditions (and got some of them).

      And of course, these days, women who work union jobs have less of a pay gap than women who work non-union jobs.

      Is organized labor’s record on women’s rights perfect? Hell no. Not close. But the idea that its record, even back then, was all bad, is just as false (and women themselves have long been labor activists). It’s a myth that I used to believe too. But it’s a myth that relevant people can use to divide the labor and feminist movements.

      • Linnaeus

        But it’s a myth that relevant people can use to divide the labor and feminist movements.

        Sometimes I think there’s a class element to this in the sense that that helps explain why some are willing to accept it. Which is not to say that there’s no empirical basis to do so at all, as Erik clearly shows here.

        • JL

          Oh, I absolutely think there is, and this is also true for the similar divide-and-conquer myth around the labor movement and LGBTQ people.

          It can be overt classism, but it can also be (classist) ignorance. Nobody in my immediate or close-extended family was a union member. We didn’t know any union members socially. The only union members that I knew growing up were some of my teachers (and I assumed that teachers’ unions were atypical anyway, since – another case of ignorance from lack of exposure – I thought unions were mostly for people who did manual labor).

          When I went to a session on the labor movement and LGBTQ people at an LGBTQ activism conference a few months ago, we went around at the start and introduced ourselves and whether we were part of a union. There were a few union members, and a few people like me who didn’t have any direct history with unions, but at least two thirds of the crowd said that they weren’t unionized but they had a parent who was and that was why they were interested. Those were the people who had enough contact with unions to want to question the narrative about unions being anti-LGBTQ.

          • Karen

            I grew up in Texas. It’s entirely possible to live here and never know any union members no matter of whatever social class you are, because the labor movement is so weak. That certainly explained most of why I had the opnion I did: a combination of my own snobbery — “stupid Archie Bunker types, what can you expect?” — and a complete ignorance of actual unions. Let me also state that adulthood cured me of this problem.

      • To be clear, I was only talking about the USWA, not all unions.

        • JL

          Oh, I understand that you were; I was responding to Karen.

    • JoyfulA

      I understand, exactly. I support the theory of unions and appreciate their necessity, but when I first became aware of unions it was in the context of the bitter struggle to keep out the others, women and people of color.

      The YWCA I went to for a workshop on something or other was bustling with classes for women to qualify for apprenticeships. Apparently, there’d just been a law or court decision requiring acceptance of women, but the criteria were set very high, and the Y was teaching women candidates, well, something.

      That was the era when Frank Rizzo was forced to admit women to the police academy. When they graduated, he made them prove themselves on single-officer beat patrol, third shift, in the worst areas. Good times!

      • That was the era when Frank Rizzo …

        Still the pride of a decent amount of Philadelphia.

        • JoyfulA

          No, still the pride of an indecent amount of Philadelphia.

  • Kalil

    I didn’t really believe that I could be /more/ disgusted with Ronald Reagan…
    I’m just…

  • Pamoya

    Indeed it wasn’t until Johnson Controls in 1991 that the Supreme Court ruled that fetal-protection safety provisions aimed only at women were illegal.

  • Murc

    Y’know, it seems like these people really did believe women were some kind of exotic, separate species.

    Did it not occur to any of those big strong union men, so concerned about the working conditions of their dues-paying members, that levels of lead and zinc exposure sufficient to cause birth defects are probably also high enough to fuck up grown men as well?

    • Rob in CT

      Seriously, that’s the first thing that jumped out at me. The blatant sexism of nearly all involved wasn’t surprising. The corporate greed and bad faith was not surprising. Not getting that exposure to toxins can hurt manly men as well as women, however, is surprising to me. It probably shouldn’t be. I guess if you actually think you’re better than women, you might convince yourself that you’re somehow more resistant to harm than they are and, thus, you are magically immune to lead poisoning. Or perhaps part of the manly man mythos is that you are such a virtuous sort that you accept the harm (it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it!) and in return you get male privilege? I dunno. It doesn’t make all that much sense to me.

      Anecdote: one of my newest claim files involves a smelter site. Spoiler: it’s really dirty, and deliberately violated laws concerning waste discharge repeatedly before being shut down. I know you are all shocked!

      • Gregor Sansa

        You expect the bad guys to be bad. But I wouldn’t have expected them to be able to just get away with this crap. And so recently, too.

    • Chuchundra

      Gestation is particularly sensitive to all kinds of environmental conditions that would have little or no effect on an adult.

      For example, allowable radiation exposure limits for a pregnant worker are roughly 1/10 of what they are for a non-pregnant worker. 50 mR/ month and 500 mR over the course of the pregnancy as opposed to 5000 mR/year otherwise.

      To use a non-workplace example, certain drugs are so toxic to a developing fetus (e.g. Propecia/Proscar) that women who are pregnant or may become pregnant shouldn’t even handle them. Yet they are perfectly safe to ingest for their specified purpose.

      • Origami Isopod

        Yes, this totally justifies the paternalism of the company in question. It’s not like the women working there could have made their own tradeoffs or anything.

  • JL

    This wasn’t the only case of this happening in the late ’70s, either – American Cyanamid pulled this same crap at Willow Island in 1978. In that case, IIRC, their union (Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International) eventually helped them.

    • JL

      An add-on – even though the union helped them sue in court eventually, it wasn’t able to save their jobs. I don’t want to portray that story, which was pretty horrible, as having an happy ending.

    • Thought about adding that, decided to save it for its own entry.

  • Origami Isopod

    But, of course, feminism is just a bourgeois concern of middle-class white women, with no pertinence to working-class ones at all. /firebaggers

    • Karen

      The one thing labor and management agreed on was that women don’t belong in factories. /snark.

      • N__B

        That’s because their hair keeps getting caught in machinery labor disputes.

  • Lee

    why are only women sterilized? Is it not possible for lead (pb) exposure to lead to defective sperm and therefore birth defects?

    • Just Dropping By

      I don’t think there was much research at all at that time about the effects of environmental exposure to lead on men’s future offspring. The negative effects on developing fetuses being exposed to it were definitely much better understood in any event.

  • DrDick

    And yet another uplifting tale of the beneficence of our benign capitalist overlords. Also further proof that both parties are just the same.

  • Unemployed Northeastern

    I believe the company was actually called Breed’s Hill.

    I’ll show myself out now.

    • Gen. Israel Putnam

      You’re lucky you showed yourself out before I could see the whites of your eyes.

      • Unemployed Northeastern

        I reckon you’d have to be very close indeed to see the whites of my eyes in a mine.

  • Brian

    As one comment mentioned, this issue was ultimately resolved in favor of women, and the plaintiffs included the UAW. The case was UAW v. Johnson Controls, Inc. 499 U.S. 187 (1991). What makes it particularly compelling is that the vote was 9 – 0, and the opinion was by Scalia. Scalia, by the way, is not always entirely predictable in labor matters, although he’s getting worse. He also wrote the decision in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. 523 U.S. 75 (1997), holding that even though Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, it does outlaw same sex sexual harassment.

  • The point that sticks out for this eurobrit is that this is a question of workplace health and safety, in the meaning of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1976. People shouldn’t be exposed to vast doses of lead on the job, period, and employers’ legal duty should be to implement a safe system of work, in consultation with the union where present. (This is what H&SWA ’76 says.)

    Otherwise what sticks out is that everyone involved except perhaps OSHA is wrong to the point of insanity. Yes, it’s wrong to assume that women are just there to have kids. But it’s a very strange kind of feminism that fights for your right and that of your children to be poisoned by your boss. It’s also a pretty weird kind of socialism that aspires to let only the blokes get lead poisoning. The boss and Reagan obviously deserved to be rolled into the sea like a sack of waste.

    It’s an interesting reminder of some of the differences between the UK and the USA.

    • Origami Isopod

      Yes, it’s wrong to assume that women are just there to have kids. But it’s a very strange kind of feminism that fights for your right and that of your children to be poisoned by your boss.

      Yes, you’re right, feminism insists that women be defined by our reproductive capabilities and that those are the most important things in our lives. It’s not like any of us might need to earn a living or something; we all have men to take care of us.

    • JL

      You were doing so well in your first paragraph.

      Of course they shouldn’t have been exposed to dangerous quantities of lead on the job in the first place, and should have had a safe system. But is it so hard to understand that even in the absence of a safe system people with uteruses would still need to provide for themselves and their families, which might include preferring higher-paying, unionized, traditionally-male work rather than the crappy-paying traditionally-female jobs that were often their alternatives?

      If you want to avoid workers being exposed to lead then you push for safety regulations to benefit all workers. You don’t use the safety argument as an excuse to get rid of an already-discriminated-against class of workers and shunt them off to lower-pay/status work while leaving the rest in place in an unsafe working environment.

      You might find the chapter in Susan Faludi’s Backlash that talks about the very similar American Cyanamid case and other examples in the late ’70s and ’80s of companies using fetal safety excuses to prevent women’s economic independence. It has a lot of quotes from the women workers about the position they were in, what their jobs were like before the case, what they were like after, why they went into this kind of work in the first place, and might give you a better idea of why they would feel the way they did about this.

  • Ralph Wiggum

    It’s interesting to ponder whether these ‘foetus protection’ arguments went hand-in-hand with the rise of the pro-life movement.

    • It does seem similar to prosecuting women for using drugs while pregnant.

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