April 14 A Job or Be Sterilized

April 14, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1975.

That was the day union representatives at Bunker Hill Mining Company in Kellogg, Idaho were notified of a policy change.

The lead and zinc producer had decided to exclude fertile women from working in lead-exposed environments.

Women workers had to provide a doctor’s note stating they were infertile, post-menopausal or had been sterilized.

Otherwise they would be transferred to ‘safer’ departments at a substantial loss in pay.

Twenty-nine women took the transfer while at least 3 opted for sterilization.  

During World War II, companies like Bunker Hill promised millions of women workers they would eliminate hazards through engineering controls.

In the 1970s, a new wave of women gained work in several industries that used occupational safety language to implement exclusionary policies like the one at Bunker Hill.

These took the form of outright bans on hiring of women, either altogether or in many departments considered too toxic for women of childbearing age.

It meant the real loss of well over 100,000 potential industrial jobs for women.

Employers could have provided actual protection through better medical coverage and benefits, installation of engineering controls or protections to include men’s reproductive health.

Instead, these policies served to rollback economic and civil rights of women workers, regardless of whether they were mothers or ever planned to be.

The women appealed to their union, state and federal commissions and OSHA but faced an uphill battle.

OSHA initially fined Bunker Hill for outstanding violations and its sterilization policy, but dropped the case once Ronald Reagan took office.

The women eventually won wage equivalency in their new jobs, but women working in heavy industry would continue to battle such policies for more than a decade.

 

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