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This Day in Labor History: October 15, 1990

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On October 15, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, finally providing a path forward for some of the Cold War’s most exploited workers, Navajo uranium miners, as well as other Americans, primarily Native Americans and Mormon farmers, who had been declared expendable by the Cold War military complex and exposed against their will or without knowledge to radiation from nuclear testing and mining. Yet even this act made it very difficult for Native Americans to win claims for compensation. This history signifies just how ignored Native American workers have been throughout American history and how the Cold War saw these people as utterly expendable.

With the rise of the nuclear state after 1945, the United States needed steady supplies of uranium. Domestic supplies were preferred where possible. The one part of the United States with significant uranium deposits is in the Southwest, particularly in the Four Corners area. Most of this land, at least in Arizona and New Mexico, was on the gigantic Navajo reservation, a deeply impoverished area granted to the Navajo first in 1868 after the disastrous attempt to move them to Fort Sumner, New Mexico and then expanded over the decades. Yet the Navajo did not have full control over the minerals on their land and throughout the mid-20th century, any Native American control over natural resources on their land frequently spurred new ways to steal it from them, including oil deposits on indigenous lands in Oklahoma. In 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission took full control over all uranium deposits and announced it would work with private contractors to mine it. It remained the sole purchaser of all uranium until 1971. This led to a mining boom with prospectors seeking riches in Western mining once again. Over 1000 mines opened on the Navajo reservation alone, with many more outside of reservation boundaries. This provided rare economic opportunity for the Navajo, who had really suffered since the government forcibly reduced their sheep stocks during the New Deal, severely undermining their economy and societal structure. Between 3000 and 5000 Navajo began working in the uranium mines, many leaving the reservation entirely for work.

But you know what’s not good for you? Breathing in uranium dust. Dust problems were as bad in uranium mines as other underground mines, with the additional problem compared to coal that uranium was also radioactive. As early as 1962, the U.S. government made concrete connections between uranium mining and cancer among miners. But the first regulations on uranium mine safety did not come until 1969. By this point, two decades of uranium mining had taken an enormous toll on the health of uranium miners. Adding to this was the very poor state of health care in the Navajo Nation, conditions largely shared throughout indigenous America. The people were very poor, no doctor was going to make money serving out there, and cultural and physical isolation also made medical care very difficult. These miners were contracting cancer that went untreated and then they died. Moreover, no one ever actually told the Navajo of the dangers of working in the mines, even after those dangers were well-known. Given that most of them did not speak English in the late 1940s, they had no way of discovering this information for themselves. There was no word in Diné for radiation. These workers were sacrificed for the nuclear state.

MinersCart

Navajo uranium miners near Cove, Arizona, 1952

Native Americans were certainly not the only uranium miners. The Cold War uranium rush in the Four Corners region brought plenty of whites into these mines too. They suffered from the same problems as Native Americans. But they also had access to more attention, including from organized labor. Research I did this summer at the Library of Congress, making up a small part of what may be my next scholarly book, demonstrates that the CIO was concerned with the fate of the white miners. Leo Goodman, the United Auto Workers’ full-time staff member on atomic issues, did some investigations into their problems, although I don’t think it really led anywhere. But there’s no recognition of Native Americans within the CIO. I think that it’s primarily that the union movement simply was not aware of Native American workers and had no way of understanding much of anything about the Navajo Nation. There were a few unionized Navajo miners working in off-reservation mines but the Navajo Tribal Council banned unions on the reservation in 1958, which meant that none of those workers could have access to the labor movement, even if they wanted it.

Not surprisingly as well, conditions of labor were different for white and Navajo miners. After dynamite blasts, Navajo workers were sent directly into the mines, while white workers were allowed to stay back until the dust settled. Navajo miners were of course paid far less, as low as 81 cents an hour in 1949. By the 1970s, there were some growing connections between the Navajo miners and the unions, particularly over the issue of testing as the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers fought to have the Navajo tested for radiation exposure as well as white miners, but this was strictly on the union level without any real connection to the Navajo workers themselves.

Over the decades, Navajo uranium miners extracted about 4 million tons of uranium for the government. This health toll was incredible. A 1995 report by the American Public Health Association discussed, “excess mortality rates for lung cancer, pneumoconioses and other respiratory diseases, and tuberculosis for Navajo uranium miners. Increasing duration of exposure to underground uranium mining was associated with increased mortality risk for all three diseases… The most important long-term mortality risks for the Navajo uranium miners continue to be lung cancer and pneumoconioses and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases.” This also led to a general pollution in the problem in the area. Rates of stomach cancer in areas near the uranium mills remain up to 15 times the rate of the normal population.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act provided up to $50,000 for downwinders, primarily those Paiute Indians and Mormon farmers exposed to atmospheric nuclear testing, $75,000 for those exposed by actually participating in atmospheric nuclear testing, and $100,000 to uranium miners. But even here, it would be extremely difficult for the Navajos and other Native Americans to collect. They needed medical evidence, but there are almost no traditional doctors on the Navajo reservation, record-keeping was shoddy, and so many had died already that widows had very little to go on to collect. The Clinton administration was somewhat receptive to these problems and made adjustments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to grant Navajos a better chance of receiving compensation, but for many, financial redress remains elusive.

As of this year, about $2 billion dollars have been awarded to around 32,000 survivors and their families under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

This is the 160th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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