Panel 4: Union Action

The depiction of Karen Silkwood, the central figure in this panel, captures the essence of a genuine working class hero whose influence is still felt, and is a recognition of Silkwood's contribution to OCAW's struggle for healthy and safe workplaces. Karen Silkwood was an OCAW officer who died in 1974 while trying to alert the public about health and safety irregularities at the Oklahoma nuclear processing plant where she worked. The story of her life includes fighting a company attempt to decertify the union where she worked, escalating clashes with management, poisoning by radioactivity on the job, and death at age 28 while en route to meet an OCAW representative and a newspaper reporter.

Silkwood also represents at least one of the meaningful efforts in our history of the organizing model of unionism. In a recent column in the OCAW Reporter, President Bob Wages said: "We believe the story behind Karen Silkwood's involvement with her union, her efforts to bring education on nuclear industry health hazards to her follow workers, and her enterprise in working to defeat a decertification in her plant, are vivid examples of the organizing model of unionism at work."

This panel proceeds to symbolize some of OCAW's best moments when the organizing model was followed: the effort to pass OSHA, the Shell strike of 1973, the BASF struggle in the 1980s, the American Home Products tragedy of the 1990s.

The 1967 convention saw OCAW take the lead in calling for a law to protect worker health and safety. A health and safety resolution was passed which led to the formation of a community/labor coalition that was instrumental in the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, symbolized at the left bottom. It was a bitter labor/management political fight, continuing for over two years, which resulted in the OSHA legislation. OCAW's role in the early days of OSHA established the union as a strong advocate for worker health and safety. And, in fact, OCAW was the first union to file a complaint under the act and the first to request an imminent danger inspection.

The "Shell Don't Buy" billboard symbolizes a 1973 nationwide strike and boycott of Shell Oil over health and safety. Not only was this OCAW's first strike over health and safety, it was the first major corporate campaign in U.S. labor history. OCAW forged alliances with the scientific, academic, environmental, and labor communities to fight Shell's position that it would not bargain over health and safety. The Union spent nearly half a million dollars to advertise a nationwide boycott of Shell and to educate the public about the need to protect the health of the workers and the communities. In the face of public pressure, Shell eventually did bargain a compromise health and safety clause.

In 1984, BASF locked out 370 OCAW members at Geismar in what was the eighth BASF lockout in a decade. To recall that conflict, the panel shows a "Break the Lockout" button. This lockout, the longest in U.S. labor history, ended in 1989. In the five and one-half years in between, BASF hired hundredS of inexperienced and untrained contract workers to run the facility. In response, OCAW organized a corporate campaign that included forming coalitions with environmentalists; marching on the state capitol; placing billboards with "Bhopal on the Bayou" messages; organizing support from around the world; blocking a hazardous waste incinerator-chemical dump project in Indiana; stopping a planned Geismar works expansion, and generally frustrating and disorganizing BASF at every opportunity. The corporate campaign ended when a three year agreement was ratified, but the coalitions formed during this struggle continue to work in Louisiana to protect worker and community interests.

A more recent event, the American Home Products fight, is symbolized too. In July of 1992, American Home Products Corporation agreed to pay $24 million in damages and legal fees to former employees displaced when the company relocated mainland drug operations to Caribbean tax havens. Nearly 600 members of OCAW Locals 7-515 and 7-838 benefitted from the settlement, bringing to an end one of the hardest-fought plant closing battles in recent labor history. AHP headed for Puerto Rico for the same reason 50 other drug and cosmetic companies have left: U.S. Internal Revenue Code Section 936, the Possessions Tax Credit. Section 936 allows U.S. corporations to operate tax-free when they set up business in Puerto Rico. At that time, this loophole was worth an average $62,000 annually per worker hired in Puerto Rico. Efforts to amend Section 936 were successful in reducing the loophole by 60 percent.

"Hometowns Against Shutdowns" was the name of a long, intensive campaign in the mid-1980s by OCAW Local 8-760 to save 450 members' jobs at 3M in Freehold, NJ. The effort included support from musician Bruce Springsteen who is from Freehold, an extensive advertising campaign to convince 3M to reconsider, and a sympathy strike by South African 3M union workers. Despite these actions, 3M carried out its decision to shut down the facility.

The burning petrochemical complex represents all such disasters but especially the 1989 Phillips disaster near Houston, TX. Twenty-three were killed and many more injured when subcontractor maintenance crews using poor lockout practices caused the explosions and fire. The Phillips tragedy brought to a head industry practices of subcontracting and focused OSHA's attention on the use of unskilled contract labor and overtime in these exceedingly complex petrochemical facilities. In testimony before Congress, Bob Wages said that strong "Right-to-Act" laws are OCAW's "long-term solution to the growing number of catastrophes in the continuous process industry." Right-to-Act laws "will automatically mean a meaningful safety process standard."

The call to "Free Tom Mooney" symbolizes that our union has always been willing to take action to further our principles and beliefs, even at the very beginning. Tom Mooney was a San Francisco labor leader who was framed and sent to jail wrongly. The first resolution passed by the first convention of the Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America in 1918 called for the release of Tom Mooney. As a sign of the times, another resolution called for the nationalization of railroads, communications, and the oil, coal, electric power, and shipping industries. Also portrayed is a 1914 battle that occurred between union strikers, the police, and hired thugs in Bayonne, NJ. The cops and the hired thugs were working on behalf of Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. Nine strikers were shot to death and at least 50 were wounded in a strike at Rockefeller's refinery in Bayonne, NJ. In July of 1915, the still cleaners had struck and within a few days the plant was down. The strike represented the men's rebellion against being punched, kicked and beaten by the bosses. Wages were so low that the workers' children worked in the child labor factories. Standard Oil mobilized an army of gunmen who rode up and down the streets of the slum-blighted city, beating and killing at sight. Once again, Rockefeller won. His refinery workers, leaderless and bewildered, were no match for his millions.

In October 1916 another strike convulsed Bayonne. The mayor, a Standard Oil attorney, and the sheriff again mobilized bands of professional killers. This time seven more were murdered and the number of wounded could never be accurately counted. These were ongoing fights for survival and the public reaction to the Rockefeller arrogance and cruelty exhibited at Bayonne (and earlier at Ludlow) ushered in the creation of the company union system as a response by the Standard Oil Company to that adverse public reaction.

The scene symbolizes the beginning of ongoing union action to overcome and win over oil and chemical company unions.