Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Libby, Montana and the Labor Movement


W.R. Grace and Company, the Montana State Board of Health, and elected officials have all received criticism for the asbestos tragedy in Libby, Montana. Now we read about the making of yet another potential culprit, the environmentalists!

In a March cover story, the West ‘s regional newspaper High Country News essentially asked this question concerning the possible prevention of misery caused by asbestos in Libby:” Where were the environmentalists? ” The article pondered why Montana’s environmental organizations hadn’ t done more to sound the alarm bells as a warning to the toxic dangers of the W.R. Grace mine. Although well written and researched, the story could have posed a more intriguing and historically important question and that is: “here was organized labor? ”

That question is much closer to the bone and the full answer to it would uncover skeletons that still haunt both Libby and Montana.

As Montana’ s congressman for 18 years and as one who, more than a decade ago, introduced legislation for a national workers compensation fund to help the victims in Libby and many other similar places around America, I came to know many of the miners from W.R. Grace’s Libby mining operation. I never met one who was a member of an environmental organization. However, each of those miners was a dues-paying member of organized labor. A still suppressed history would be uncovered if we recognized why Libby’s workers and their families were not protected by those union leaders whom they were paying to do so.

The late Bob Wilkins, a former president of the Operating Engineers Local 361 (Bob eventually died from asbestosis), was asking questions, beginning in the 1970s, about the increasing lung illnesses among his fellow Libby miners. Wilkins found a receptive ear in the union’s umbrella organization the Montana AFL-CIO and its then Executive Secretary, Jim Murry. Their efforts, however meager, to uncover the truth about the dangers were met with derision by others within the union movement.

High-placed union officials in both Montana and the nation rejected suggestions to examine worker safety as” nothing but whining from tree-hugging, soft-hearted, left-wing environmentalists.” Who were those labor officials opposed to seeking the truth about the toxic poisonous dust of the Libby mine? My resistance to indict the now deceased prevents me from naming names, however, high-ranking union officials created a political atmosphere that was almost as toxic as the asbestos seeping into the lungs of its victims.

In the 1970s, partially in response to the determination of Wilkins and Murry, wrong-headed union officials formed a purposeful but tragically mistaken alliance with Montana’s extractive industries, including the W.R. Grace Company. Instead of uniting with those organizations whose causes were common to theirs – community, environmental and worker safety groups – some unions joined forces with those companies who saw clean water, air and worker health and safety as a threat to their bottom line of profits first. Through those new alliances, the companies rather than the workers defined the issues affecting workplace safety.

Those bazaar company-union alliances have negatively affected workers’ salaries and safety in Montana for three decades. From the forests, to the Butte mines, to the coalfields of eastern Montana, the power of unions and the rights of workers have been marginalized by the toxic politics of bad alliances.

And while we are asking questions – here is one: ” Where were Libby’s workers?”

Were they demanding to know why they were attending so many of their friends’ funerals? Were they insisting that their unions, the State of Montana and the U.S. Congress confront the W.R. Grace mining company?

Let’s face it, the answer, tragically, is no. As with too many workers in many other places, having a job was paramount and those who ” rocked that boat” were punished. The workers in Libby were virtually silent as their fellow workers wheezed and gasped on their plunge toward death.

We all now understand that the situation would have been far different if those Libby workers could, by some magic, have viewed a fast-forward of the poisons and funerals and economic tragedy that would engulf them. However, for three decades most of them believed they were protecting themselves and their families by protecting the very company that was hiding the terrible knowledge about the mine’s toxic emission.

It is now clear that the obligation of the union leaders was to sound a clear and certain alarm and to form common cause not with the companies but rather with environmental and community organizations.

By doing that, organized labor could have saved hundreds of lives and spared the workers and the town of Libby, Montana, of its tragic and unnecessary calamity.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West







Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana’s Congressman. He now lives in Missoula where he teaches at the University of Montana.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Uri Avnery
The Peres Funeral Ruckus
Tom Clifford
Duterte’s Gambit: the Philippines’s Pivot to China
Reyes Mata III
Scaling Camelot’s Walls: an Essay Regarding Donald Trump
Raouf Halaby
Away from the Fray: From Election Frenzy to an Interlude in Paradise
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
David Yearsley
Trump and Hitchcock in the Age of Conspiracies
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”