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


October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?