Today in labor history: Death of unionist Karen Silkwood

On November 13, 1974, Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union activist Karen Silkwood was killed in a suspicious car crash while exposing health and safety violations at a Kerr-McGee plutonium processing plant in Oklahoma. Her car went off the road when she was on her way to deliver documents to a New York Times reporter. Silkwood’s actions brought to light serious health and safety problems at nuclear facilities.

Karen Silkwood worked at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. Silkwood’s job was making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She joined the union and was active on issues of health and safety at the plant as a member of the union’s negotiating team, the first woman to have that position at Kerr-McGee. In the summer of 1974, she testified to the Atomic Energy Commission about her concerns.

For three days in November of 1974, she was found to have high levels of contamination on her person and in her home. While driving to a meeting that month with David Burnham, a New York Times journalist, and Steve Wodka, an official of her union’s national office, she died in a car accident under mysterious circumstances.

Her family sued Kerr-McGee on behalf of her estate. In what was the longest trial up until then in Oklahoma history, the jury found Kerr-McGee liable for the plutonium contamination of Silkwood, and awarded substantial damages. These were reduced on appeal, but the case reached the United States Supreme Court in 1979, which upheld the damages verdict. Before another trial took place, Kerr-McGee settled with the estate out of court for US $1.38 million, while not admitting liability.

The Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel plants closed in 1975.

Her life was featured in Silkwood (1983), an Academy Award-nominated film based on an original screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. The film was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood, Cher and Kurt Russell. The film is available on DVD.

Books about the Karen Silkwood story:

Rashke, Richard. The Killing of Karen Silkwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

Kohn, Howard. Who Killed Karen Silkwood? New York: Summit, 1981.

Hannam, Joyce. The Death of Karen Silkwood. Oxford Bookworm Series, 1991.

Workday Minnesota and Wikipedia contributed to this article.


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