Discounted casualties

April 29th, 2000
6. Indefinite strike

Angered by the noxious work environment
A succession of jobs

Near the northeast tip of Tennessee, Jonesborough lies in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Fewer than 4,000 people live in the state's oldest town.

An Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee (AOT) plant spreads across the southwest edge of Jonesborough, roughly five kilometers (three miles) from the center of town .

In front of an aerial photo of Starmet Corporation
The Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee plant, which still produces DU penetrators (Jonesborough, Tennessee)
At the interview: "No danger"

"This and Starmet in Concord, Massachusetts, are the only companies in the US that make DU penetrators." Michael Elam (45), a neighbor and former employee of Tennessee Nuclear Specialties Company (now, AOT) stopped working as he said this.

We were in Elam's basement workroom. Stroking his long mustache, he continued. "AOT makes 120mm penetrators for tanks, but its main product is 30mm penetrators for the air force. The A-10s flown in the Gulf War fired a lot of those. We probably made some of them... Anyway, it sure was a terrible environment to work in."

Elam, who worked for a textile company after graduating from high school, came to AOT when he married in 1979 "for a little more money." He learned what the company made during the job interview. He was told in that interview that depleted uranium (U-238) "is no more dangerous than standing next to a microwave oven. Nothing to worry about."

Spills on the floor

To become a penetrator, U-238 metal material undergoes several processes-baking at 1,600oC, immersion in an oxide solution, and elongation into the proper cylindrical shape. During the production process at AOT, small explosions sometimes occurred, spilling the solution on the floor. "The dust filter didn't work, so the air got extremely dusty," said Elam in disgust. "All we wore was cotton overalls, gloves, and work boots. We had no protection from radiation whatsoever."

Not only was the environment in the building dangerous, the company dumped the uranium oxide sludge and contaminated water in a tailing pond dug on the premises. When the pond filled with contaminated water, it was discharged into a stream near the plant. "Around the pond, we'd see dead birds or even cats that climbed the fence."

At the time, the plant employed around 100 production workers. Because the company refused to respond to requests to improve the working environment, the labor union went on an indefinite strike in May 1981, citing a labor law recognizing the right to walk off a job for "health and safety."

The company refused to bargain with the union. In August it hired new workers, covered the windows, and resumed production. "Because this area has no key industries, jobs are hard to find. So, even a company with an unsafe environment will always attract workers."

No compromise

The labor union, with Elam as vice-president, continued to fight. The $25 a week the National Union of Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) provided to each striker was not enough to live on. The strikers had to sell their houses and cars and take part-time jobs to eat.

While the labor union sought arbitration by the National Labor Relations Board, in February of the following year, the company announced that union members could return to their jobs unconditionally.

By that time, the positions of many employees had been taken-only a few union members regained their jobs. Elam and the other blacklisted union leaders could not find jobs anywhere in the area. He chose self-employment, trying everything from home repair to handicrafts.

"In the 1980s, the military threw all kinds of work at AOT. And AOT put profits over the health and welfare of its workers and the safety of the community. It's unbelievable that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is supposed to be a watchdog, exercised no control over AOT."

The struggle continues between AOT and resolute union members like Michael Elam.
Jonesborough mapFormer AOT employee Michael Elam
Former AOT employee Michael Elam

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