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How a Town Got Poisoned

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