Where were the unions?

  High Country News asks: "Where were the environmentalists when Libby, Mont. needed them most?" (HCN, 2/21/05: Where were the environmentalists when Libby needed them most?). However, the more interesting question, closer to the bone, is: "Where were the labor unions?"

As Montana’s congressman for 18 years, I knew many of the miners from W.R. Grace’s Libby mining operation: Not one of them was a member of an environmental organization, but each of them was a dues-paying member of organized labor. Why weren’t Libby’s workers and families protected by those union leaders who were being paid to do so?

The late Don Wilkins, a former president of the Operating Engineers Local 361 (who eventually died from asbestosis), began asking questions, beginning in the 1970s, about the increasing illnesses among his fellow Libby miners. Wilkins found a receptive ear in labor’s umbrella organization, the Montana AFL-CIO and its then executive secretary, Jim Murry. However, their efforts, particularly throughout the 1970s and ’80s, were met with derision by many others within the state’s union movement.

High-ranking union officials created a political atmosphere that was almost as toxic as the asbestos slowly seeping into the lungs of its victims. Instead of uniting with those organizations whose causes were common — community, environmental and worker safety groups — unions joined forces with mining and timber companies that viewed clean water, air and worker health and safety as a threat to their bottom line. Through those new alliances, the companies, rather than the workers, defined the issues, particularly those affecting working safety.

And throughout the decades from the ’60s to the ’90s, what of 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 Justice Department and the U.S. Congress confront the W.R. Grace mining company?

Tragically, no!

Poisons and funerals and economic tragedy would soon engulf them. However, for three decades most of them believed they were protecting themselves and their families by protecting their company.

It was the obligation of the union leaders to sound a clear and certain alarm. Organized labor could have saved hundreds of lives and spared Libby, Mont., from its tragic and unnecessary calamity.

Pat Williams
Missoula, Montana