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This Day in Labor History: May 18, 1979

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On May 18, 1979, a jury found for Karen Silkwood’s estate in her plutonium exposure case. Unfortunately, she had died in a car accident five years earlier that was likely a murder orchestrated by her employer enraged by her exposing their toxic legacy.

Karen Silkwood was a working-class woman from Texas, divorced and taking care of a couple of kids when she got a job with the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Cimarron, Oklahoma in 1972. This was a unionized plant, with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, one of the nation’s most progressive unions and one highly committed to empowering workers to use OSHA on the shop floor to protect themselves. This was the strategy of Tony Mazzocchi, OCAW legislative director’s and a person who did more than anyone else to build relationships and alliances between the labor and environmental movements. Silkwood became a protege of Mazzocchi. Workers at Kerr-McGee went on strike shortly after Silkwood was hired. Like many union activists over the years, she found the strike personally liberating and became a major union activist in the aftermath. She was elected to the union’s bargaining committee, the first woman in the plant to hold that role, and took the lead in investigating health and safety problems.

To say the least, the nation’s nuclear industry had a lot of health and safety problems in the 1970s. Moreover, nuclear employers and agencies were hostile to fixing these problems, an arrogance that received a public face in the 1979 film The China Syndrome. Silkwood took to her new role with aplomb and found lots and lots of health and safety violations. This allowed the OCAW to directly challenge Kerr-McGee in a way that had not happened before. She discovered that the company exposed workers to potentially dangerous levels of radiation, using faulty respiratory equipment, did not provide adequate shower facilities for workers to wash away any contamination, and did not store samples properly. The OCAW threatened litigation against the company. In the summer of 1974, Silkwood testified before the Atomic Energy Commission that safety standards had been violated when the company sped up the work.

In response, Kerr-McGee poisoned Silkwood with plutonium, the start of an increasingly heinous campaign that led to her murder. On November 5, 1974, she engaged in a self-check for radiation and discovered she was a mere 400 times the limit for plutonium-239 contamination. It’s not entirely positive how the company had done this. Clearly something had happened, for this was not something that happened randomly. All she could figure out was that there were not holes in her gloves, so it was something else. She continued to test way out of control for plutonium. On November 7, she tested as she entered the plant and was so contaminated, the air she was breathing out of her lungs actually tested positive for plutonium. Her house tested positive for plutonium as well and many of her belongings had to be destroyed. Now, it’s at least possible, if not probable, that it was accident. Maybe she spilled her contaminated urine she was putting into a sample at home. She admitted it was possible. Kerr-McGee said that she was setting them up. It’s also possible it was someone working rogue in the plant and it was not the company itself who did this. Security was notoriously lax at the plant and it was possible for people to smuggle out plutonium pellets if they so chose. We will probably never know the precise truth. But it’s almost impossible that this was not a nefarious act against Silkwood for her advocacy for workplace safety.

In any case, Silkwood was freaked out and had also collected a ton of evidence against Kerr-McGee. She contacted a New York Times reporter. On November 13, she agreed to meet him and OCAW executive Steve Wodka in Oklahoma City, after work. She never made it. Someone forced her off the road and she died in the ensuing accident. The car contained none of the documents that she was to deliver the reporter. Whoever forced her off the road stole them. The police report claimed she was on Quaaludes and marijuana and fallen asleep at the wheel. This was bullshit. Who knows if she took pills and smoked weed–it was 1974. Who cares. But this is obviously not what killed her that evening in rural Oklahoma. Moreover, she had a new Honda Civic and it was definitely not some sort of mechanical issue.

Karen Silkwood’s story became national news after her death. Meryl Streep even played her in the famous movie, which I confess that somehow I have never seen. Gil-Scott Heron even referenced her in a song! So did Wendy Williams. Silkwood’s father filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee for her wrongful death on behalf of her children. Kerr-McGee continued saying she was a troublemaker who poisoned herself. This is such an insane defense. Who the hell would poison themselves with plutonium????? Silkwood had plenty of concrete evidence of lax safety problems and a union to back her up. This defense does not pass the smell test, not at all. And on May 18, 1979, the jury agreed, awarding the family $505,000 in damages and $10 million in punitive damages. Of course, Kerr-McGee appealed and not only got a federal appeals court to throw out the punitive damages, but also reduced the actual damages of all of $5,000 damages. But the family then appealed to the Supreme Court. Now, I want you to suspend disbelief here and think back to a long ago time when the Supreme Court had some measure of integrity. I know, this is hard. But the SCOTUS ruled on the appeal that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s standards did not forestall claims on tort grounds and overturned the appeals court without specifically reinstating the original verdict. At this point, Kerr-McGee settled for $1.38 million.

What actually happened to Karen Silkwood will almost certainly remain unknown. The year after Silkwood’s murder, Kerr-McGee shut down its Oklahoma plutonium operations.

This is the 313th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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