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The Legacy of the Bunker Hill Mine - Part 2

By Arthur J Miller

In 1916 the WFM changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, or the Mine, Mill Workers, as they were called. In the depression years there was considerable growth in the Mine, Mill Workers and in 1936 they were one of the eight founding unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After the second world war, Mine Mill Workers fell victim to the postwar, anti-labor and anti-communist hysteria. Like a number of other unions (including the IWW), they resisted the Taft-Hartly Act. They found themselves labeled subversive by the Subversive Activities Control Board. A number of their leaders were indicted, but they were cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956. Later, 14 more Mine, Mill Workers were indicted for conspiracy and were finally cleared again by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968. Throughout the '50s and early '60s numerous Mine, Mill members found themselves arrested on state charges, including, in 1959 union vice-president Asbury Howard , who was jailed, beaten and sentenced to the chain gang for the crime of urging Blacks to register to vote in Alabama.

The opportunistic, reactionary piecards in the CIO saw their chance to drive out of the CIO the more radical elements in the post-war madness. On Feb. 15, 1950, the Mine, Mill Workers were expelled from the CIO along with the Fur & Leather Workers Union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. This clearly showed that the ideas of the IWW, of creating a labor organization outside of the conservative, piecard controlled labor organizations was correct. For what use is there in "boring from within" when at any given opportunity the reactionaries will stab you in the back?

The CIO then handed all Mine, Mill Workers' jurisdiction over to the United Steel Workers. The Steel Workers had been violently raiding Mine, Mill Workers since the moment the resisted Talf-Hartley. Even with all this going on, Mine, Mill Workers was able to pull off some of the largest post-war strikes in the country. But after a while they were worn down by the attacks from every direction on them. On Jan. 16, 1967, the United Steel Workers took over the Mine, Mill Workers, and the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers was no more, except for one local in Sudbury, Canada that refused to change its name. Thus the legacy of the WFM died a very inglorious death. One can only speculate as to what a major difference there would have been to miners and the labor movement, had Moyer not soldout and forced the WFM out of the IWW.

After the brutal repression of the 1899 strike, the Coeur d'Alene District went through a number of years without any unions. This was aided by blacklists and the Idaho state government that issued a proclamation that forced miners to get a permit from the state to work. To get a permit a miner had to renounce membership in any organization (the union) that was involved in the 1899 struggle. Also any miner who was involved in that strike was refused a permit to work. In the '20s and '30s the Mine Mill Workers made slow inroads back into the district. This first important strike came about on August 2, 1937 at the Sunshine mine. With 216 miners picketing the mine some of the other mines (including Bunker Hill) that were still nonunion told their workers to quit work for the day and go to the Sunshine mine and put on a counter demonstration against the strike. Though they all took the day off with pay, only a small handful joined the counter demonstration. The press carried wild tails of violence, a tipped over buses set on fire, burning cars blocking the main highway and many injuries. The fact is that none of this had happened. It was only a campaign by the press to try to turn people against the strikers. The company fired all the strikers and hired scabs to take their place. Since the firing of workers involved in a legal strike was against the law, the fired workers did get back pay after a number of years of court battles, which the other mine owners helped with Sunshines legal expense. The union miners were blackballed and could not get jobs in the other mines.

It was not until 1942 that unionism return to Bunker Hill with a contract with the Mine mill Workers. By 1946 most of the district was again under union contact. But unfortunately the unity of the district was broken by a right wing element. In the contract negotiations of 1947 one of the three locals broke away from the other two and signed their own contract, with was for less than the master contract signed in time by the other two locals. When the 1949 negotiations were taking place the same local broke away again and signed as contract that was the same as before with no changes. The difference this time was that the other locals went out on strike. The right wing element had also infiltrated one of the other locals and forced an early settlement at Bunker Hill. This break in unity forced a settlement for far less than was being struggled for in the other mines. There was another strike in 1955 with about the same disunity and a settlement for less than they could have gotten. After this the locals went their separate ways and their were no more district wide Mine Mill strikes.

In the 1959 into 1960 negotiations at Bunker Hill the company took a hard line against the union and broke off all talks. On May 5, 1960 the workers at Bunker Hill went out on strike. This strike was to be different than in the past, for the reactionary and business communities mobilized against the union workers like never seen before in the district. The first important part in this happened in the schools. The school kids were taught about the so-called Communist infiltration in the U.S. Included in that was the claim of Communist control of some labor unions, including the Mine Mill Workers. To back this up they pointed to the expulsion of Mine Mill Workers from the CIO ten years earlier. With the help of some teachers, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion and the Shoshone County Anti-Communists Association a large number of high school kids organized the "I Am An American Youth Movement", and a large anti-Communist march and rally in Kellogg. The anti-Communitist hysteria grew to the point that union miners found their own kids turning against them. Later even a group of miner's wives organized an anti-Communist group. The anti-Communists issue a rather interesting list of words used by "Communist" that included, working class, ruling class, capitalist, tyranny, class struggle, demonstration, character assassination, stool pigeon, coexistence, scabs, big money interests, freedom loving people, democratic action, democratic majority, world peace, and the workers. They stated that "by their words ye shall know them". And asked, "How many have you heard locally?"

The striking workers stood strong threw the summer and then the reactionaries tried something different. A petition for decertification was started up and those that signed on were called Blue Carders. Later it was revealed that a new "American" union, the Northwest Metal Workers, was behind this with the help of the local media that printed their lies and decertification forms in their papers. The Blue Carders got enough signatures for a NLRB decertification election. By the time the election was held in December many of the workers were broken down by the anti-Communists campaign (it was said that only Communists would vote for Mine MIll Workers), some of their kids and wives turning against them and the "Back to Work by Christmas Committee" of the Northwest Metal Workers. This committee had such emotional pleas printed in the local paper such as a little girl looking up at her father saying "will you be back to work by Christmas, daddy?" And "Please, God! for Mommy's sake let daddy go back to work by Christmas." Also, the schools in the Kellogg area stopped the school lunch program saying that it was helping the strikers by feeding their kids. The company union, the Northwest Metal Workers won the election by 51 votes.

Thus closed out the years of the Mine Mill Workers at Bunker Hill. The Metal Workers quickly gave the Bunker Hill bosses the contract that they wanted. A few years later the United Steel Workers took over the Bunker Hill contact along with all the other Mine Mill Worker's contracts in the district. And that is how I came to hold a card in the United Steel Workers a few years later.

This story does not end here, for in 1973 a fire badly damaged the baghouse, where smelter emissions were filtered through cloth bags before being released into the air. Rather than close down the smelter and repair the damage, the jackasses ran the smelter by-passing the baghouse and the built-up lead rained downed upon the surrounding towns. The families, and most tragically the children, were poisoned with lead.

The family of miner Bill Yoss, who had worked underground for 25 years at Bunker Hill, was tested by doctors from the Center for Disease Control. His daughter, Arlene, was found to have more than four times the threshold then considered dangerous. The lead had settled in her bones and her legs grew twisted. Only hot soaking baths would ease her continuous pain. Her mother was told, after the tests on Arlene and her two other children, that she had "three walking dead babies." In 1975 Bill Yoss went to see an attorney in Spokane to see what could be done. While he was away he was fired. The Yoss family filed suit against Bunker Hill. The information gathered for the suit told a story of corporate crime almost beyond comparison. Bunker Hill settled with the Yoss family and the families of 35 other children in 1981. All records and information gathered was sealed by the court, and it was not until 1990 that the records and the story that the suit revealed of the poisoning of the people of the Silver Valley became known.

Within the unsealed documents was found a two-page memo in which the vice president of Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp. (the company that owned Bunker Hill at that time) calculated an estimation on how much Gulf would have to pay if it continued to expose children to lead emissions rather than shut down the smelter and repair the baghouse. His estimate came to $6 to $7 million for poisoning 500 children. He also examined the possibility of discrediting the doctors who warned of the dangers of lead poisoning. At the time, prices for lead ore were high, so Gulf decided that the profits were far greater than the "costs" of poisoning children. That year Gulf raked in $25.9 million from lead ore. Some of the costs to the workers and community included:

  • 1. The lead pollution was so bad that the State of Idaho was measuring it by tons per square mile. A reading in Kellogg showed in excess of 30 tons of lead per square mile in the year after the fire. Smelterville was put at 25 tons per square mile. "I had pictures I took at 2 p.m.," Bill Yoss said. "it was so dark you had to have your headlights on." The residents of these communities were exposed to mega-doses of lead greater than any other community anywhere else in the world throughout history.

  • 2. The hazardous threshold of lead, back then, was 1,000 parts per million. Sediments along the river bank were measured at 40,000 to 50,000 parts per million. And by 1987, when they were finally measured, 75 percent of the yards in Kellogg and 81 percent of the yards in Smelterville exceeded safe levels.

  • 3. In a study of workers who had worked at the smelter between 1940 and 1965, found that deaths from kidney disease was four times higher than expected based on U.S. death rates. Deaths from kidney cancer were nearly double, and deaths from strokes were one-and-a-half times higher than expected. After the fire 56% of Bunker Hill workers have come down with kidney disease, including myself. It was not until the 1990s that this information was made public. Kidney disease takes a while to hit you after your exposure. Many workers, like myself moved on to other jobs, and thus cannot prove that their illness was caused by exposure to lead at Bunker Hill. They cannot even prove that it is job related. Thus, the figure of 56% has to be a low figure. How they came up with that figure was to track workers by their Social Security numbers and records, medical claims and the National Death Index. How many workers like me that are not included in that 56% no one will ever know. Maybe I will be included when I die. Like many other workers, working with the pain of kidney disease is hard. I had to quit my last job because of it. I have no medical coverage, no on going medical treatment, I keep myself going with roots, herbal teas, lots of cranberry juice and pain killers that I have to go up to Canada to get. Even as I write these words, I am struggling with pain to do so. Even the workers who stayed at Bunker Hill lost their medical insurance because Gulf went bankrupted.

  • 4. Over 5,000 people have been exposed to the lead fallout. In 1974 the Center for Disease Control tested children for blood lead levels and found that all the children living in Smelterville had unsafe levels, as did 99 percent of children in Kellogg and 93 percent of children in Pinehurst. This came to nearly 600 children known to have been poisoned by corporate greed at that time that was documented by the government. No one knows how many other children in the area were poisoned. The government left it at that and did nothing until 1980, six years later, when they found that 75 percent of the preschool children (not even having been born yet at the time of the great exposure) were poisoned. No follow-up studies were done to see if this was a continuing tread, to determine the long-lasting health effects on the children known to be poisoned, and no testing was done on the adults. Again this information was not released until years later, and nothing was done to stop the continuing poisoning of children. It was not until 1994 that another test was done on children, and it found one-fifth of the children had blood-lead levels greater than the harmful level.

Are there words to really tell you how I feel about all this? Even saying that this was premeditated mass murder seems not to be sufficient. To knowing cause deaths of workers, to knowing cause the great suffering of little children with their twisted bodies, and to knowing allow this to continue year after year, there are just no words in any language strong enough for such a crime. No matter how many years past, this crime haunts my very being, it sickens me. With the mixed emotions of sorrow for the victims and immense rage for the profiteers and the government, I will carry this with me to my dying day.

Through a conspiracy by the federal government, the state of Idaho, the courts and Gulf, the people of the area did not know about how badly they had been poisoned until 16 years later. The only action that was taken was by the Public Heath Service which went into the schools and would put on puppet shows to teach children how to play (among the effects of lead poisoning is reduced mental ability).

In 1985 Bunker Hill became the second largest Superfund site in the country, covering an area of 21 square miles. The following is but a small sampling of what was found at the site:

  • 1. Trees, grass and other vegetation would not grow in much of the area because of toxic metals in the soil and high soil acidity caused by sulfur dioxide emissions.

  • 2. The smelter contains at least 36,500 tons of toxic heavy metals including lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury, cobaly, copper, beryllium, arsenic, asbestos, antimony, selenium and PCBs. If all the buildings were to be demolished the hazardous debris from that alone would fill 22,500 dump trucks.

  • 3. The Central Impoundment Area, a level dike of smelter waste piled over 70 feet high and extended for a mile, contains 20 million tons of highly toxic mine tailings. When the wind blows, "fugitive dust" blows into the surrounding towns. Until recently, the town of Kellogg, not knowing of the toxins in the waste, would crush slag off these piles and spread it on icy streets.

  • 4. The yards, playgrounds, schools and even the rugs inside of homes were found to contain lead and other toxic material.

  • 5. The South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River and many streams were found to be repositories for lead, cadmium and zinc. Fish that found their way into these waters were killed. An estimated 72 million tons of mine tailings remain in these waters, and an estimated ton of heavy metals are washed down the river every day. The EPA says that cleaning up this mess in these waterways is beyond the Superfund capabilities.

  • 6. The problem is yet to end, for heavy metals are still coming out of the portals of the mines.

I wish I could take pity on you dear reader, and tell you that this corporate crime was confined to the Silver Valley, but it is not. The Coeur d'Alene River feeds into the Coeur d'Alene Lake, which is full of toxic sediment and from there it goes down the Spokane River which feeds into the Columbia River. The toxic sediment collects behind dams and washes all the way down the Columbia River to the ocean. Adding to this problem has been clear cut logging, road building and commercial development. All this adds to runoff from rain and melting snow which picks up the toxins from the ground and washes it into the rivers. This also increases the amount of flooding in the area. In years of great flooding toxic sediment is dispersed throughout the flooded area.

The federal government and the state of Idaho, take the attitude that over a long time that once the toxins are washed away, that new clean sediments will cover over the toxic sediment in the waterways and flood grounds and be sealed in.

Who will pay for the cleanup, and what happened to the corporate criminals? Keeping the crime a secret allowed Gulf to sell Bunker Hill and take their assets to New Zealand where they cannot be touched. They then filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. This gets them out of paying for the cleanup or other law suits by poisoned people, and leaves Bunker Hill workers without their pensions and medical benefits. The new owners were able to profit from the cover-up of the truth and the slow action by the EPA, and ran the mine for a while; they then closed it down and sold off contaminated equipment and rail ties. They then diversified their assets to the point that there was no company left.

This story of the Silver Valley comes to an end where the history began, with the Coeur d'Alene Indian Nation. They are suing eight mining companies still left in the area, the Union Pacific Railroad (because of the uncovered railcars that went through their land and the toxic material that blew off them) and the state of Idaho to force a cleanup of the waterways, flood grounds and along the rail line. The Coeur d'Alene Nation's land is downstream from this dreadful mess. This is the first such suit by a Native Nation.

A mine owners association has recently "fixed" the blame for the closing of Bunker Hill on "environmental extremists, the Coeur d'Alene Indians, and disgruntled miners who exaggerated the harmful effects of (toxic) materials from mining." And to show just how sick some people can get, there are those who want to create a Bunker Hill National Park to honor Bunker Hill's great history.

The mine owners, the politicians, the U.S. government, the state government of Idaho and the pie-card leaders of the United Steel Workers were all partners in the crime that took place and the long cover-up of their misdeeds. If a poor person steals a loaf of bread to eat, that "criminal" is hunted down as a threat to humankind. If a rich person causes the deaths of workers, poisons children, fouls Mother Earth, they are allowed to live their lives in the luxury gained by their crimes. When I speak of class struggle, it is not some ideological philosophy, but rather a struggle for survival and the hope that someday we can make the worst criminals in history pay for their crimes against us.

The lessons to be learned from the legacy of Bunker Hill are many, a book could be written on that alone. But the heart of the matter is very simple--we, the workers, the oppressed and exploited people, cannot find any justice or ethical values from any bosses, politicians, judges or so-called labor leaders. We can only find such things among ourselves. And we, organized as a great power, are the only ones who can put an end to this historical human tragedy called capitalism. Our power should be delegated to no one, for we can trust no one but ourselves.

After researching this writing, I pulled out my old Steel Workers card and looked at it. It seemed not a thing of pride and honor, but a thing of shame -- a card of union betrayal. I have always been a card carrying union man. And I attend to continue to be one until my body is placed into the ground of Mother Earth. But I also know how the Steel Workers got control of Bunker Hill, and how the pie cards sought to cover-up a great crime. I then burned my card in honor of the Coeur d'Alene Nation, in honor of the long miner's struggle, in honor of the workers who died because of corporate greed, in honor of the 91 miners who died in the Sunshine Mine, in honor of the poisoned children, and in honor of Mother Earth.