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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

June 15, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Karen Silkwood

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

On two well-known and important sides to Silkwood’s story of whistleblowing and its consequences, and one that needs more attention.

Thanks in no small measure to Meryl Streep’s Academy Award-nominated performance as Silkwood in Mike Nichols’ 1983 film, some of the key elements of Karen Silkwood’s story are quite familiar, yet remain important for us to remember. Certainly the most famous is her mysterious death in a car crash, almost certainly a murder orchestrated in some form by the powers that be at the Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel fabrication site in Oklahoma against whom she was in the process of blowing the whistle. While we will likely never known for certain who killed Karen Silkwood (a familiar refrain from the period that became the name of a 1981 book on the case), there’s no doubt that her case reveals the genuine danger that whistleblowers face, especially when (as is so often the case) they go up against the nation’s biggest and most powerful corporate interests. Such danger can seem like the realm of conspiracy theorists or political thriller films, but Karen Silkwood reminds us that it’s all too real.

Of course, the danger to Karen Silkwood’s health and life had begun long before her death, and was at the heart of the source of her whistleblowing in the first place: the plutonium contamination to which she and (she alleged, and as has subsequently been confirmed) many of her coworkers at the site had been exposed. While the cause of Silkwood’s accident and death could not be proven, her contamination certainly could be and was, leading to a successful lawsuit by Silkwood’s family against Kerr-McGee (or rather, the company settled out of court for $1.38 million without admitting guilt, but I’d call that successful enough). This prominent and important detail of Silkwood’s story helps us remember that workplace health and safety concerns aren’t just part of the history of labor in the United States (which is often where we locate them, in the 19th century conditions that gave rise to the labor movement)—they have remained central to labor struggles and successes in the 20th century and into the 21st as well.

Speaking of the labor movement, that’s one aspect of Silkwood’s famous story that to my mind has not received enough attention: the role of union organizing and activism in her personal story and that of the site’s workers overall. When Silkwood got a divorce, moved to Oklahoma (from Texas) with her three children, and got a job at the Kerr-McGee site, she almost took part in a strike with the Oil, Chemical, & Atomic Workers Union; shortly thereafter she became the first woman elected to the site’s union bargaining committee and was assigned to investigate health and safety issues. Which is to say, both Silkwood’s contamination and her whistleblowing apparently took place not in her role as a worker (which is how I had always thought of them), but rather in her capacity as a labor representative and leader. As dangerous as work has always been in America, labor activism and leadership are at least as dangerous, and also of course comprise dangers undertaken for the communal benefit of one’s fellow workers (in that job and everywhere). Karen Silkwood braved those dangers for all her colleagues, and her life and death alike reflect that reality as much as any other side of work and whistleblowing.

Next WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?

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