When the three-member delegation from Cimarron sat down in his cramped offices on 16th Street, Mazzocchi could sense defeat. Tice, Brewer, and Silkwood told Mazzocchi their story of woe: the broken strike, the gutted contract, the company's push to decertify the union.
“I said, ‘Look. I'll send you up to the Atomic Energy Commission tomorrow,'” Mazzocchi remembered. “But in my mind I'm saying, There ain't a fuckin' thing we're gonna do here. There's gonna be a lost decert election. ”
As Wodka worked with the threesome to shape their complaints into precise demands to the AEC, it became clear that Kerr-McGee was running a plutonium pigsty in rural Oklahoma. It was also clear that the company encouraged workers to think that assembling plutonium pellets into fuel rods was little more dangerous than assembling curtain rods. Yes, plutonium was radioactive, and alarms did go off regularly at the plant. Of course workers received small doses of radiation now and then. But according to Tice, Brewer, and Silkwood, the company had never mentioned the C-word—cancer. Workers didn't know that plutonium was the most carcinogenic substance ever discovered.
Even many of Kerr-McGee's local managers genuinely believed there was no cancer link. Company-oriented consultants repeated the mantra, “Plutonium has not been found ever to have poisoned a single employee or a single member of the public at large”—though hundreds of uranium miners had died of similar exposures caused by alpha radiation. The Cimarron plant's health physics director had a degree in poultry science.
Cutbacks and speedup created such horrific working conditions that production workers turned over at a rate of nearly 60 percent a year, according to the local unionists. On the plus side, this meant that most workers soon got out of harm's way. But with such rapid turnover, it was predictable that accidents would happen. And they did.
Mazzocchi learned quickly that Tice, Brewer, and Silkwood themselves didn't have a clue that the plutonium processed at their plant caused cancer. He arranged for two nuclear scientists to conduct educational sessions for workers back at the Cimarron plant as soon as possible. Maybe this would disrupt workers' company-induced complacency and win a majority back to the union.
But while the move might boost the union's vote in the decertification election, it wouldn't keep workers from being crushed again come bargaining time. Mazzocchi thought that Kerr-McGee would force another strike and again replace the OCAW strikers with local scabs. The union workers needed more than an education session. But what? The press would hardly be interested in a tiny Oklahoma struggle over wages and working conditions, unless a pile of bodies appeared or plutonium threatened the community .
Without a hook, Mazzocchi was pessimistic. He returned to work, letting Wodka finish up with the visiting delegation . Then, as the three Cimarron unionists were preparing to leave, Silkwood drifted into Mazzocchi's private office—and offered him a potent lead .
Karen said: “You know, there's some other problems that I'd like to talk to you about.” I said, “What are they?” She said, “I work in a quality-control lab, and I noticed the lab technician would use a felt pen on the X-ray to cover over that little thin line that showed a crack in the control rod welds.” And she told me there was some fooling with the computer data, too. I said, “Look, Karen, if you could prove that, I think we could use it to beat the company and improve the conditions in that facility.”
Mazzocchi then told Silkwood about his good friend David Burnham, a writer for The New York Times . Burnham had broken the Serpico case (about corruption in the New York City Police Department) and was now researching atomic energy issues. As Tony explained it later :
My idea was for Karen to steal X-rays and other data and deliver it to us. Then we'd deliver them to th e Times. Dave could get us a front-page story. We would then get his piece to the workers to convince them they should keep a union, that the union could protect them. I also thought that if the company had a front-page New York Times story, the nuclear industry would jump their ass and say to Kerr-McGee, “Hey, you better resolve this union problem before we get smeared further.”
The strategy had worked on Shell Oil, which had been pressured to back down by an embarrassed industry. With the public already jittery about nukes, an expose of possible faulty control rods for the controversial fastbreeder reactor might well send the industry running to the phone to tell Kerr-McGee to settle this tiny labor squabble .
Mazzocchi's aggressive game plan assumed certain unwritten rules of engagement. The union's job was to inform the members and empower them to fight intensely against unsafe conditions—by finding community allies, embarrassing the company through the media, and any other smart tactics the union could think of. It expected the company to retaliate by threatening workers' jobs, suspending or firing activists, and otherwise violating labor law. In a strike or lockout, the company would rely on scabs, get injunctions to cripple picket lines, cut off strikers' health benefits, get finance companies to harass strikers who fell behind on their mortgages and loans, and perhaps even instigate physical attacks on picketers.
But usually a large company like Kerr-McGee would go only so far to win its war with labor. While the company might see a show of force as necessary, its primary goal was to get back to quiet production. Major corporations did not like public exposure, so they often chose to settle rather than wage a protracted war.
By 1974, Tony was seasoned. He'd seen organized crime, mass strikes, red-baiting, police violence, political corruption, and dozens of union bargaining campaigns. He had no reason to believe that Kerr-McGee was different from any other company. Mazzocchi didn't believe in good and bad corporations or executives. The logic of capitalism, he was convinced, would force any company, no matter how good or bad, to place profits before worker and public health, and to give in only when their profits or reputation were sufficiently threatened .
A company like Kerr-McGee might be a little more pigheaded than average, but in the end it was just another giant to be confronted. And with luck, guile, and union workers courageous and tough enough to put their jobs on the line, it could perhaps be defeated. The keys, as always, were building a base among workers, appealing to the community, and finding the company's vulnerabilities—a Mazzocchi-style corporate campaign .
But although neither Mazzocchi nor Wodka would ever acknowledge it, events suggested they were in over their heads. At Kerr-McGee, it turned out the usual rules of engagement did not apply.
Kerr-McGee's little plutonium venture in Oklahoma formed a critical element in a very large fight about the future of atomic energy. The battle had begun with the building of a fast-breeder reactor on the Clinch River in Tennessee. The Atomic Energy Commission and large corporations such as Westinghouse and Kerr-McGee placed considerable bets on it, with the AEC providing much of the financing. The AEC undermined anyone who argued that plutonium was just too dangerous for use in civilian reactors.
The agency buried its own safety study, which had found that a single mishap could contaminate an area the size of Pennsylvania and kill hundreds of thousands. The commission repeatedly fought against improved safety standards for workers, arguing that the danger was minimal. Billions of federal and corporate funds were at risk .
The nuclear-industrial complex needed the Cimarron plant and its plutonium-packed fuel rods for its new breeder reactors. National security was at stake. While oil was critical for defense and the economy, plutonium was defense itself. The “oil weapon” was a metaphor. Nuclear weapons were the real thing.
Mazzocchi did not grasp at first how powerful this government-military-corporate compact was. Nuclear weapons production and atomic fuel production were shrouded in secrecy, not subject to normal congressional oversight. This made it easier for the weapons establishment, the atomic industry, and Kerr-McGee to operate outside the law. Investigations in 1975 would reveal that the AEC regularly cheated on its budgets to promote projects such as the breeder reactor. Nuclear supremacy justified all manner of public deceit.
This industry also rewrote the laws of the marketplace. It demanded and received huge public subsidies and guaranteed profits. In fact, without government insurance, civilian nuclear power plants could not exist .
In Oklahoma, things were worse. Kerr-McGee was king, and what was good for the company was by definition good for the state.
As he geared up for a fight, Mazzocchi did not fully appreciate the qualitative differences between the oil bosses and the plutonium bosses—the degree of corporate–government collusion and the extremes to which the plutonium industry and its government allies might go to protect their interests. Mazzocchi assumed the other side would play by the unspoken rules of the game. They would cheat, lie, intimidate, and manipulate. But never did he entertain the notion that this fight might lead to murder.
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