Accelerating the Struggle: Discontent Stalks the National Labs

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Accelerating the Struggle: Discontent Stalks the National Labs

by Peggy Strom

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 1, January 1976, p. 22-24

The National Laboratories are a post-World War II development that evolved from the wartime mobilization of scientists. Partly devoted to basic research and partly to continued atomic-weapons development, the Labs offer employment to research scientists under favorable conditions, but with somewhat less prestige than a faculty job at an elite university. (In certain fields, an individual may have a joint appointment at a cooperating university and a National Lab.) The Laboratories engaged primarily in research are Brookhaven on Long Island, Argonne near Chicago, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the new National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Los Alamos in New Mexico and Oak Ridge are Labs that do nuclear weapons and nuclear-reactor research with some support for basic-research programs. The research programs are mainly in elementary-particle physics and related areas in nuclear physics, but Oak Ridge, Brookhaven, Argonne and Livermore also support programs in biology. The Labs employ tens of thousands of people about 10% of whom are staff scientists or engineers (with status roughly equivalent to that of university faculty).

Scientists in these Labs work in programs dictated by management, and have little say about organization or direction. Nevertheless these jobs are desirable; indeed, in elementary-particle physics the Labs are virtually the sole employer. Until five years ago these jobs were secure but the common work problems of layoffs, job insecurity, and the assignment of routine tasks are beginning to reach into this section of the science workforce as the economic crisis is precipitating large-scale attacks on the working conditions of people at the National Laboratories. In broad outline these attacks include speed-ups, layoffs, and tightening control over the freedom of scientists to choose their own conditions of work. 1,2 The responses to these attacks on traditional scientific prerogatives have ranged from apathy and defeatism to attempts to organize. However, these organizing efforts have received little attention from the media and the organizers themselves face hostility from both management and their co-workers. 

Scientists and many other technical workers are now in a situation where their relative privileges are being taken away by the same institutions which offered them in the first place. Thus a dominant theme faced by the organizers is reluctance on the part of scientists and engineers to confront the managements with whom they have had a relaxed and privileged relationship in the past. 

Conflict at Argonne 

Events at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) illustrate these themes concretely. At this laboratory is an organization of scientists called the Argonne Senate. Organized in 1967 by senior staff members, it was designed as an advisory body to the ANL administration on “matters pertaining to the performance and operation of the Laboratory”. It was expanded in 1969 and again in 1972 to include all ANL salaried employees. At first concerned with new research programs, the Senate got involved in job issues as the budget cutbacks in the early 1970s started to roll in. Response of the ANL management to this interference was hostile. In 1972 a management policy statement was issued titled “Obligations and Responsibilities of the Argonne National Laboratory and Members of the Staff in Regard to Employment.” Called the “O and R document” by the staff, the statement simply asserted that .. Argonne reserves the right to terminate an employee…because of conduct inimical to the interests of the Laboratory or the US government.” 

In 1973 five percent of the ANL staff was laid off. A fired employee filed suit against Argonne in May 1973 charging that the Argonne Senate was sympathetic to management, having had supervisors as members, and that the existence of such an organization constituted an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act). The settlement in 1974 permitted the ANL management to terminate its relationship with the Senate until the supervisor “problem” was solved. 

So on the one hand the Senate incurred the wrath of management when it attempted to challenge management’s hiring and firing prerogatives, and on the other hand it failed to build a supportive membership because it acted, in fact, as a company union. The Senate attempted to move forward by polling its constituency about future possibilities. The members were asked to choose between (a) continuing as present and refraining from “discussing all matters relating to wages, hours, terms and conditions of employment,” (b) disbanding, or (c) transforming the Senate into a legally acceptable labor organization of nonsupervisory staff members which could seek recognition (but not necessarily collective-bargaining power) with ANL management. I do not have the final results of this poll, but the preliminary results showed (c) to be ahead. 

Encore at Oak Ridge 

The same themes were played out a year later at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge gained fame during World War II because it was the site of the gaseous-diffusion plant that produced the uranium 235 for the atomic bomb. In the post-war period it continued as a weapons- and thermonuclear- research center although it developed basic research programs in biology, physics, and chemistry. ORNL is operated by Union Carbide Corporation for the federal government on a contract basis.3 All employees are employees of Union Carbide. The Lab employs about 2,000 so-called professional or monthly-salaried scientific and technical people, and about 16,000 people overall. Of the professional employees, 725 are Ph.D.s The political climate is conservative. 

In 1973 a small group of scientists began meeting to discuss demoralization at ORNL. Frank Collins, a union organizer in the professional division of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), spoke with them about organizing problems. Collins advised unionization even though he predicted that there would be extensive staff resistance to be overcome. At the same time Carbide began to reorganize ORNL. A new laboratory director, Herman Postma, was appointed. Postma, a staff nuclear physicist and a crony of retiring director Alvin Weinberg, supervised the reorganization of the Laboratory structure. Scientific sections (in general research areas like cell biology) headed by section leaders were replaced by programs and program managers. The material basis for these changes is the desire of Union Carbide to transform ORNL from a science research center into what Carbide would like to call the “Energy Capital of the World.” Coal, coal gasification, and breeder reactors in close contact with the Tennessee Valley Authority and strip-mining interests are expected to displace other activities. 

The reorganization was accompanied by the layoff of 500 workers just two weeks before Christmas. The scientific staff was left intact, but people were shaken by the viciousness and severity of the layoffs. 

In September 1974, against this backdrop of insecurity and uncertainty, the organizers issued a call for the formation of a Professional Staff Association (PSA). 

We believe that solutions to many of the morale problems of the staff which occur at the Laboratory could best be obtained from a constructive and candid dialogue between management and the staff. This has not been possible in the past and does not exist at present … An organization structured by the staff itself whose members are not appointed or controlled by management would insure the necessary support from the staff to provide the individual employee with the confidence to express freely his or her opinions.” 

The statement was signed by 112 staff members. 

Postma attacked immediately: “PSA could be interpreted as a ‘labor organization’ and must be dealt with at arms length.” Postma attached sections of the Taft-Hartley Act to his memo and warned that “all group leaders, section heads, department heads, scientific directors, project managers, etc., must be excluded” from the organization. 

The organizers now faced a potential membership fearful. of entering into anything like a trade union. At the first meeting a steering committee of 23 people from twelve divisions passed two motions: 

“It is the consensus of the interim steering committee of the ORNL PSA that the Association should not seek collective bargaining power as defined in Section 8(d) of the National Labor Relations Act.” 


“The Interim Steering Committee affirms that the 112 signatures of the original PSA letter to monthly employees at ORNL, or any further signatures solicited in response to that letter should not be used as authorizations to represent or be used to accompany a petition for an election to determine a bargaining agent.” 

Subsequent biweekly meetings of the steering committee were low key. An informative newsletter was distributed regularly. The PSA supported a program to screen people for possible exposure to plutonium and other transuranium elements. Investigations had begun into age discrimination and the issue of professionalism as an impediment to organizing was under discussion. But the only issue which engaged the organization in active struggle with the ORNL management was a partially successful attempt to obtain copies of the current contract between ORNL and the Energy Research and Development Administration. The PSA used the Freedom of Information act to obtain copies of the contract, but Union Carbide withheld all information about salary policy. “This means,” one organizer said, “that they can reward whomever they want, whenever they want, for whatever they want.” The challenge is proceeding through legal channels. 

The central problems the organizers face, however, are unsolved. First is exhaustion. Second is their own reluctance to push militant issues. And third is the fear of the potential membership to participate in collective political activity on their own behalf. These problems exist because scientists and engineers have had relatively privileged jobs until now. Relationships with employers have been friendly and laissez-faire. In short, scientists and engineers have become accustomed to being looked after, and are not used to political struggle. 

Old ideas die hard! In a discussion of how to build membership it was suggested that a demand be made to Union Carbide that the staff should have three-year contracts. As it now stands, anyone can be fired with only two-weeks’ notice. The idea was that people would join the organization if the PSA could win a victory of real value. The people in the room were divided on the issue. One of the most effective and hardworking organizers opposed the demand because he felt that “management needs the flexibility to remove dead weight.” This ambivalence towards management must be resolved for the organization to move past its present limits. Since there is a conflict of interest, the organizers have to be clear about what they really want. Otherwise the conflict remains unexpressed and the organization is unable to serve the interests of its members effectively. 

Other professional workers have resolved this problem: School teachers, nurses (see Science for the People, March, 1975), and hospital resident physicians have successfully taken on managements with militant strikes to obtain reduced class sizes, lighter patient loads, and reduced working hours. These gains benefit the people served as well as the workers themselves. 

Finally, it must be realized that the successful outcome of these struggles requires the alliance of nonprofessional and professional employees. The resident physicians in New York and Chicago hospitals created a strong alliance with hospital workers around the issue of improved patient care. Without this support the residents would not have had the leverage to win their demands for a reduction on the length of their workweek and the number of consecutive hours they could be required to work. In New Haven, the leaders of a teachers’ strike were released from jail when the New Haven Central Labor Council threatened to call a general strike. At ORNL, on the other hand, the PSA is topheavy. Whereas 75% of the 200 initial members were Ph.D. scientists, only 35% of the PSA’s constituency are Ph.D.s. These figures reflect the difficulties that the organizers have in breaking down elitist divisions. 

Summing Up 

Scientists and engineers are in an ambiguous position. They can try to preserve their working conditions and jobs by making an appeal to management that they are special and superior, and that therefore they should not be treated as ordinary workers. Such an appeal is clearly reactionary and elitist. Alternatively, scientists and engineers can ally with “nonprofessional” employees to gain control of the workplace by recognizing that not only is this essential to good scientific work but that all workers are entitled to the same decent working conditions. The forging of this alliance is the first step toward the creation of a real science for the people. 

>> Back to Vol. 8, No. 1 <<




  1. Hard Times: Employment, Unemployment and Professionalism in the Sciences. Science for the People, 16 Union Square, Somerville, MA 02143.
  2. Crisis at CUNY. Newt Davidson Collective, P.O. Box 1034, Manhattanville Station, New York, NY 10027.
  3. Cost-plus contracts allow 10% or more profit on the costs of the contracted work to the corporation. They are obviously highly profitable, no-risk arrangements as long as Federal money continues to flow.