LABOR AND THE CLAM By Steve Thornton


By Steve Thornton

Peter Kellman went to work at the Laconia Shoe Company in Sanford, Maine on the morning of September 18, 1980.  Peter was a machine operator at the factory and the president of the local shoe workers union. He was also an anti-nuclear activist with the Clamshell Alliance.  That morning he posted a notice on the union bulletin board urging workers to support the upcoming state referendum to shut down Maine Yankee, the state’s only nuclear power plant.  That’s when the trouble started.

The manager saw the notice.  He approached Peter at his injection molding machine and ordered the worker to take the flyer down.  Peter refused.  When the manager removed it, the union activist took the notice out of the manager’s hands and put it back up.

The next day top management gave Peter an ultimatum: take down the notice or take a three-day suspension.  He chose the suspension, but wouldn’t leave the plant. Instead he demanded union representation which, like the right to post bulletin board notices, was guaranteed by his contract.  The boss called the police and Peter was arrested. 

In solidarity, two shop stewards came to work wearing No Nukes shirts.  Both women refused to leave the plant and they were arrested too.  The day before the statewide referendum, 150 shoe workers defied the boss and pinned No Nukes buttons onto their work clothes. “It was at that point that the company caved,” Peter recalls.  “We three were paid for our time off and we won free speech on the job.”

From the Seabrook construction site to the shop floor, the fight against nuclear power became a fight for democracy. The Laconia Shoe workers were standing up against nukes, but they were doing even more: they were standing up for democracy at work.  Their union had overwhelmingly voted to support the shutdown of Maine Yankee. Their bulletin board was won through collective bargaining.  They believed they had the right to speak out on public issues at work, even if they had to defend that right with nonviolent direct action.  Even if it meant serious consequences. 

The Clamshell Alliance knew from the beginning that to win the fight against nukes, a real connection had to be forged with workers and their unions.  Up until that time, the national AFL-CIO was a partner with the nuclear industry and its goal of 1000 nuclear plants by the year 2000. It was up to groups like Clamshell to challenge that partnership.

“As working people we bear the brunt of environmental hazards in our communities and in our workplaces,” a Clamshell Alliance Congress resolution stated in 1977.  The Clam expressed its “active solidarity with the struggles of other working people” for full employment, safe jobs, and democratic unionism.

Anti-nuke activists established the Clamshell Labor Committee.  One of our earliest outreach efforts was to open a dialogue with Seabrook construction workers and local fishermen.  Clamshell Labor also raised awareness and funds for the nationwide JP Stevens clothing boycott and the United Mine Workers’ contract fight.  Activists played major support roles in a local strikes and protests against utility worker layoffs.  We worked with a minority construction company to demonstrate the job-creating potential of solar construction.  We organized health and safety trainings for workers in both the nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries. We lobbied on local legislation, opposing “right to work” proposals and supporting workers’ access to information about exposure to chemical hazards. We raised the economic and political impact of nuclear power at state AFL-CIO conventions, challenging the knee-jerk support for nukes from the building trades unions. When Pilgrim nuke workers in Plymouth, Massachusetts complained of being frequently assigned to high radiation jobs, Clamshell members set up a picket line and several hundred workers honored it.

Clamshell’s labor work had an influence across the country.  In Washington we found an ally in Environmentalists for Full Employment, an advocacy group that organized a conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania soon after the accident at Three Mile Island, as well as the historic 1980 meeting of nearly 1000 anti-nuclear union workers from 57 unions in Pittsburgh. William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and arguably the most progressive national labor leader of his day, signed on to the demand to halt new plant construction.

And maybe most significantly, as young Clams we got active in our own unions.  From our first fights on the shop floor about the dangers of nuclear power, to navigating the local labor bureaucracy, we dug deeper into the union movement, running for and winning union office.  Fresh from the Seabrook camp sites and the jails, we brought with us a perspective of democratic participation and environmental awareness.

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