FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Libby, Montana and the Labor Movement

by PAT WILLIAMS

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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS’s Losses in Syria and Iraq Will Make It Difficult to Recruit
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer Bernie Morphs Into Public Option Dean
Gregory Barrett
Can Democracy Save Us?
Dave Lindorff
Budget Goes Military
John Heid
Disappeared on the Border: “Chase and Scatter” — to Death
Mark Weisbrot
The Troubling Financial Activities of an Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate
Robert Fisk
As ISIS’s Caliphate Shrinks, Syrian Anger Grows
Michael J. Sainato
Democratic Party Continues Shunning Popular Sanders Surrogates
Paul Bentley
Nazi Heritage: the Strange Saga of Chrystia Freeland’s Ukrainian Grandfather
Christopher Ketcham
Buddhism in the Storm
Thomas Barker
Platitudes in the Wake of London’s Terror Attack
Mike Hastie
Insane Truths: a Vietnam Vet on “Apocalypse Now, Redux”
Binoy Kampmark
Cyclone Watch in Australia
Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
Lawrence Davidson
Moral Failure at the UN
Pete Dolack
World Bank Declares Itself Above the Law
Nicola Perugini - Neve Gordon
Israel’s Human Rights Spies
Patrick Cockburn
From Paris to London: Another City, Another Attack
Ralph Nader
Reason and Justice Address Realities
Ramzy Baroud
‘Decolonizing the Mind’: Using Hollywood Celebrities to Validate Islam
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto in India: The Sacred and the Profane
Louisa Willcox
Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?
Norman Pollack
Militarization of American Fascism: Trump the Usurper
Pepe Escobar
North Korea: The Real Serious Options on the Table
Brian Cloughley
“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump
Sheldon Richman
You Can’t Blame Trump’s Military Budget on NATO
Carol Wolman
Trump vs the People: a Psychiatrist’s Analysis
Stanley L. Cohen
The White House . . . Denial and Cover-ups
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail