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Karen Silkwood (Nick Sweeney)

Union Martyr

"We must remember her story, because it is a symbol of the ... courage of millions of trade unionists who have fought, and still fight, to defend the health, safety and security of their fellow workers."

A poster commemorating Karen Silkwood is available for $10. Proceeds to benefit the Labor Party. To order, call 718 369-2998. Artist: Nick Sweeney.


Meryl Steep at 'Remembering Karen Silkwood

Meryl Steep at 'Remembering Karen Silkwood'

Meryl Streep, who portrayed trade unionist Karen Silkwood in the 1983 movie Silkwood, joined co-star Ron Silver, director Mike Nichols, and the real-life players in the Silkwood drama on the stage of Symphony Space here on Dec 17. Silkwood’s son, Michael Meadows, who was five when Silkwood was killed, also made an emotional appearance.

The event was presented by the Labor Party with co-sponsorship by UE and other union endorsers of the party. Proceeds will benefit the Labor Party’s Just Health Care campaign.

A UE delegation led by District One Pres. Connie Spinozzi attended the event; some UE members traveled with two vanloads of Lehigh Valley Labor Party members. Spinozzi described the event as "A good tribute, well worth it."

A union activist, alarmed by the serious health risks in a nuclear fuels production plant, investigates the dangers. She uncovers a frightening cover-up by the company. Her home is mysteriously contaminated with radioactive plutonium.

While taking revealing documents to a confidential meeting with a union staff representative and an investigative reporter, she’s killed in an auto accident under highly suspicious circumstances.

That, in brief, is the story of Karen Silkwood, still remembered as a union martyr 25 years after her death. Silkwood, an employee of the Kerr McGee Company’s Cimarron plutonium plant in Crescent, Okla., was a member of Local 5-283 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.

The Silkwood story became the basis for the movie Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep with Kurt Russell and Cher. Silkwood was a powerful movie, but the actual events surrounding the death of 28-year-old Karen Silkwood are even more riveting, and tragic, and far more complex.


Silkwood was a victim of company harassment, like other union activists in the plant, but her problems didn’t end at the factory gate.

There is evidence that Kerr McGee, a virulently anti-union corporation with powerful political connections, kept Silkwood under surveillance, possibly with the help of police and government agents. Someone tapped her phone. Someone had, in fact, contaminated her apartment. And evidence strongly suggests her car was forced off the road on the night of Nov. 13, 1974.

Why she would be marked for murder is no mystery. Three months previously she had given the Atomic Energy Commission a detailed list of safety violations at the plutonium plant where she worked. The night of her death she was on her way to meet Steve Wodka, assistant to OCAW Legislative Director Tony Mazzocchi, and a New York Times reporter.

Silkwood was bringing with her documents that proved her allegation that quality control of fuel rods had been compromised. Her revelations might have exposed a major scandal with enormous and wide-ranging ramifications.

Exactly how she died — or who killed her — is still a mystery.


While the movie has outstanding moments, Silkwood’s portrayal of the union as a largely irrelevant organization is one of its dishonesties. In the movie the young woman is only gradually drawn to the union as a result of her concern with health and safety. The real Silkwood became committed to her union during a long strike not long after she went to work at the plant in 1972. Kerr McGee broke that OCAW strike in the winter of 1972; only 20 workers remained in the union out of a workforce of 150. Kerr McGee instigated a decertification election.

"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," recalls Tony Mazzocchi, today the Labor Party’s national organizer. "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 to develop a plan to defeat the decert effort," Mazzocchi continues. "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," Mazzocchi writes. "Although the union had begun with only 20 members, we beat back the decert effort by 80 to 61."


Mazzocchi encouraged the young activist to collect detailed information about the plant’s hazards. Only about a month after the election, Silkwood left home for a meeting with Mazzocchi’s assistant and the reporter. Her car ran — or was forced — off the road. No documents were found.

"Karen Silkwood was a union martyr," says Mazzocchi. "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."

In recalling Silkwood’s life and death, UE NEWS readers might view the movie Silkwood, although keeping in mind its limitations. Missing from Hollywood’s interpretation is the real Silkwood’s loyalty to her union, and the company harassment which made her life hellish. Readers are recommended to look for two fascinating accounts of the Silkwood case, The Killing of Karen Silkwood by Richard Rashke and Who Killed Karen Silkwood? by Howard Kohn. Particularly noteworthy in these accounts are the company’s political and military connections.

Karen Silkwood was a courageous woman worker whose life and death should not be forgotten.


(This article was based on a review that appeared in the UE NEWS on Jan. 16, 1984 and on an article by Tony Mazzocchi, Labor Party national organizer.)

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