Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood

Becoming Union

Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwood

After only three months at the plant, Silkwood found herself on a picket line. The workers at Kerr-McGee were part of the OCAW union—Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. The contract negotiations were intense, and a strike resulted. In addition to the longer hours already established, in order to cover the striking workers the company had hired strike-breakers, most of them young men between 18 to 21 years of age, and most not trained as fully as the regular workers at the plant. It was a recipe for disaster.

As William J. Broad wrote in a 1983 article in The New York Times titled, "Fact and Legend Clash in 'Silkwood": "Beyond all doubt, Kerr-McGee's factory was a hellish place to work. Between 1970 and 1975 there were 574 reported exposures to plutonium. During a Congressional investigation, Dr. Karl Morgan, a former health physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he had never seen a facility so poorly run."

The strikebreakers ultimately forced the union to capitulate, but it ignited a fire in Karen that she didn't know she had. After the strike was over, she was one of the few original employees still left, surrounded by people she didn't recognize, who weren't properly trained. She was elected to the union board in September 1974. Her responsibility was health and safety.


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