Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for Karen SilkwoodMarkin comment:
The following is an article from the Spring 1984 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.
**********Silkwood. Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by
Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. ABC Motion Pictures.
A Twentieth Century-Fox release, 1984.
By Amy Rath
The long-standing controversy over the death of Karen Silkwood is being debated yet again, as the release of the movie Silkwood brings the case into the public eye. Silkwood has long been embraced by feminist and ecology groups as a heroine and martyr to the atomic power industry—the "no-nuke" Norma Rae; many believe she was deliberately poisoned with radioactive material and murdered to shut her up. Now, the movie, starring Meryl Streep and directed by Mike Nichols, has been seized upon by such bourgeois mouthpieces as the New York Times and the Washington Post to propagandize for the nuclear energy industry and smear her name.
"Fact and Legend Clash in "Silkwood'," cired the Times' science writer William J. broad, masquerading as a movie critic in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. "Chicanery," "meretricious," "a perversion of the reporter's craft," blasts a Times (25 December 1983) editorial. That same day the Washington Post printed a piece by one Nick Thimmesch, a free-lance journalist with ties to Silkwood's employer, the Kerr-McGee corporation, charging "glaring discrepancies between the known record and the film's representations."
These are lies. In fact, Silkwood sticks remarkably close to the documentary record. If anything, it is surprisingly devoid of politics for such an alleged propaganda tract. Frankly, it's a little dull. It includes a lot of material (some of it made up, presumably for dramatic interest) about Karen Silkwood's unremarkable personal life. Like most people, she had problems with her lovers and roommates, didn't get along with her ex-spouse, was often troubled, and drank and took drugs. The bulk of the movie is a retelling of the last few weeks of her life, and raises more questions than it answers. How were Karen Silkwood's body and home contaminated with plutonium? Was Kerr-McGee deliberately covering up faulty fuel rods, which could lead to a disastrous accident at the breeder-reactor in Washington state where the rods were to be shipped? What happened on that Oklahoma highway on 13 November 1974, when Karen Silkwood was killed in a car crash, en route to an interview with a New York Times reporter?
The ending of the movie shows Silkwood blinded by the headlights of a truck on the highway, then her mangled body and car, seeming to imply that she was run off the road, as indeed independent investigators have concluded from an examination of her car and the tire tracks on the road and grass. Then a written message on the screen reports that Oklahoma police ruled her death a one-car accident and found traces of methaqualone (Quaalude) and alcohol in her blood¬stream. The conclusion is left for the viewer to decide We may never know the answers to these questions. As we noted in Workers Vanguard (No. 146,25 February 1977) in an article titled "Conspiracy and Cover-Up in Atomic Industry: FBI Drops Inquiry in Karen Silkwood Death":
"The abrupt cancellation of the second Congressional investigation into FBI handling of the case of Karen Silkwood has added to a widespread belief that the facts surrounding the death of the young trade unionist two years ago are being covered up at the highest levels of industry and government.
"...her documentation of company negligence and falsification of safety records was damning to powerful interests and as long as the bourgeois courts and commissions are running the investigations of her death, the only results will be successive cover-ups of the cover-ups."
In the fall of 1974 Karen Silkwood had been working for two years as a laboratory technician at the Cimarron, Oklahoma plutonium processing facility owned by Kerr-McGee, one of the largest energy conglomerates in the U.S. She became interested in health and safety issues at the plant. She brought her worries to the union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), and was elected as a union safety inspector, the movie makes this appear to be her first interest in the union. In fact, she had been one of the few die-hards in a defeated strike the previous year; she never crossed the picket line and she remained in the union even when its membership went down to 20. Along with fellow unionists, she traveled to union headquarters in Washington, D.C., where officials assigned her to gather documentation of company cover-ups of faulty fuel rods, as well as other safety violations.
Early in November 1974, Silkwood was repeatedly contaminated with plutonium, one of the deadliest materials known to man, in circumstances which have never been fully explained. In the Hollywood movie Meryl Streep ends up with raw pink patches over her face from decontamination scrubdowns. Her panicked expression when she knows she has to face a second one imparts the horror of it. Yet it is only a pale image of the reality. Silkwood's first scrubdown was with Tide and Clorox; the two others which, occurred over the next two days employed a sandpaper-like paste of potassium permanganate and sodium bisulfate. De¬spite this chemical torture (try scrubbing yourself with Ajax sometime), her skin still registered high levels of radiation. Worse yet, three days of nasal smears (to monitor inhaled radioactive contamination) increased to over 40,000 disintegrations per minute (dpm)— normal background radiation from cosmic rays and naturally occurring isotopes is roughly 30 dpm.
Silkwood's house was contaminated as well; it was stripped and her belongings were sealed and buried— one scene poignantly portrayed in the movie. An examination conducted at the medical facility at Los Alamos showed that she had received internal contami¬nation possibly as high as 24 nanocuries of plutonium (about 50,000 dpm). The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, now Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has set a lifetime limit of 16 nanocuries; many specialists consider this hundreds of times too high. The fact is that plutonium is an extremely potent carcinogen, inhalation of which is virtually certain to induce lung cancer at levels where other radioactive nuclides can be tolerat¬ed. And Silkwood was particularly susceptible—she was female, had lung problems (asthma) and was small, under 100 pounds. In short, the plutonium she received chained her to cancer and a painful, slow death.
It is for this contamination, which an Oklahoma jury ruled the responsibility of Kerr-McGee, that $10.5 million in punitive damages was assessed against the company for the Silkwood estate. On January 11 the Supreme Court ruled the court had a legitimate right to assess this penalty; however, the case has been returned to a Jower court where Kerr-McGee may challenge the award on new grounds. Kerr-McGee has held that the contamination was "by her own hand," as a plot to discredit the company, a contention repeated by the New York Times in its editorial, which doesn't even mention that a jury had ruled this imputation not proved.
Since then, theories about Silkwood's contamination have included such slanderous tales as that put forth by alleged FBI informer Jacque Srouji, who claimed that Silkwood was deliberately contaminated by the union, to create a martyr. This is a telling indication of how far the capitalists will go to discredit the only thing that stands between the workers and total disregard for any safety. In the movie the International union representatives are made to appear as a bunch of slick bureaucrats who push Silkwood way out front without anywhere near sufficient backup. Certainly the OCAW is as craven before the capitalists as any other union in the U.S. But it has fought, however partially, for safer conditions for the workers it represents.
In the movie, Silkwood posits that someone purposely contaminated her urine-specimen jar with plutonium while it was in her locker room, a jar she later accidentally broke in her bathroom at home. This explanation is plausible, but we can't know for certain. We do know that Silkwood had been a straight A student in school, the only girl in her high school chemistry class, a member of the National Honor Society. She had studied medical technology. She knew that tampering with plutonium was death. The idea that she would deliberately contaminate herself could originate only in the sick and vicious minds of a profit-mad industry like Kerr-McGee.
Even the New York Times had to admit that Kerr-McGee was "a hellish place to work." Between 1970 and 1974 there were 574 reported exposures to plutonium. Dr. Karl Morgan, formerly a health physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, testified at a Congressional investigation that he had never seen a facility so poorly run. The plant was constructed in a tornado alley; the tornado warnings were so frequent that the company never bothered to remove the plutonium to a safe place. Yet the hazards of the plant get barely a nod in the film. Only one other instance of contamination is shown, Silkwood's friend Thelma. But when Silkwood is shown leaving off her urine sample at the lab for analysis, the audience sees many such samples lined up, thus many more contaminations.
Yes, nuclear power is dangerous. An accident such as almost happened at Three Mile Island could kill thousands of people. But the only "solution" to this problem provided by the movie Silkwood—and shared in real life by the OCAW union tops—is, ironically enough, the New York Times! Get the Times to publish the damning evidence, and the AEC will make Kerr-McGee straighten things out. The crusading press will save America by publicly exposing wrong, and the government will step in and perform justice. Sure. This is a liberal pipedream: the AEC serves the interests of power conglomerates like Kerr-McGee, and the New York Times worships money, not justice.
The "no-nukers" hail the name of Silkwood in their campaign to abolish nuclear power. But the problem is that you have to replace it with something, and in this capitalist society there is no such thing as a danger-free source of energy. For generations workers have died miserably in coal mines and suffocated to death with black lung disease. Like any technology, nuclear power can be used and abused. It is not so much a question of a special technology, but the irrationality of the capitalist economy which makes all industry in the U.S., including the nuclear industry, hazardous. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan threatens to blow up the world hundreds of times over to save American profits. Over 90 percent of the nuclear waste in this country is military. And that's nothing compared to the global nuclear holocaust plotted in the Pentagon. That is the real danger of nuclear power.
The no-nuke movement is part of a middle-class ecological concern that the disastrous conditions which workers have faced for generations might spread to the suburbs, perhaps even onto a college campus. Anti-nuke groups actively publicize and collect funds for the Silkwood lawsuit but not a peep is heard in protest against the murder of Gregory Goobic during a two-week strike by OCAW Local 1-326 in Rodeo, California last January. Goobic, a 20-year-old union member, was run down by a scab truck while picketing a Union 76 oil refinery. A company boss, with arms folded, stood in the dead striker's blood as cops kept the other picketers away. The capitalists and their government are not interested in the lives of their employees, particularly when adequate wages, work¬ing conditions and safety precautions stand in the way of profits. Obviously one thing militants in unions such as OCAW must do is fight for safety committees with the power to close down plants. But equally necessarily is the struggle to replace the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy with a leadership that will break with both bourgeois parties and build a workers party. The world will be safe to live in when the ruling class has been expropriated by a workers government that runs society for the benefit of all, not the profits of a few.
Silkwood has been denounced by corporate spokesmen at the New York Times for portraying Karen Silkwood as "a nuclear Joan of Arc" when she was really "a victim of her own infatuation with drugs"; it has been denounced by anti-nuke fan Anna Mayo of the Village Voice for portraying her as a dope-smoking "bad girl" when she was really "beloved daughter, sister, friend, union martyr and heroine of the largest, most viable grass-roots force in the U.S. and Western Europe, the anti-nuclear movement."
Actually, Karen Silkwood was simply a union militant fighting the best she could for a better life for herself and her coworkers against one of the least safe, most powerful, biggest price-gouging capitalist enterprises in the country. And we think the movie did a nice job showing it."
Labels: MILITANT TRADE UNIONISM, nuclear proliferation, safety issues