Thursday, November 12, 2009

Karen Silkwood: an inspiration to fighters for environmental justice and workers' rights

Karen Silkwood

By Sharyn Jenkins

Thirty-Five years ago, on November 13, 1974, US anti-nuclear activist and trade unionist Karen Silkwood was killed in a car crash many suspect was deliberately caused. Karen Silkwood will be remembered as someone who fought an uphill and often unpopular battle against the ruthless nuclear industry. She is an inspiration to all who believe in environmental justice and workers' rights.

Silkwood grew up in Nederland, the petrochemical heart of Texas. Following an unhappy marriage and bitter divorce, in which she lost custody of her three children, she moved to Oklahoma City to look for work. In 1972 she began work in the Kerr McGee Metallography Laboratory.

Union militant

Work at Kerr McGee was not pretty. Silkwood discovered numerous violations of health regulations: exposure of workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment, plutonium samples stored in desk drawers and plutonium samples taken to local schools for show and tell.

Because the plant provided just two showers for the 75 workers on each shift and allocated no paid time for workers to shower, most workers left the plant unshowered.

Within a few months of being employed at the plant, Silkwood was elected as the first female committee member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union at Kerr McGee. Alarmed at the health risks faced by workers, she collected evidence to expose the poor health and safety standards. …

While she was collecting evidence, Silkwood's phone was bugged, her movements monitored and, worst of all, she was deliberately contaminated with plutonium. The contamination was so severe that after her death all the clothes and other belongings removed from her apartment were put into sealed drums to avoid contaminating others. …

Karen Silkwood: an inspiration to fighters for environmental justice and workers' rights

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