In March 1970, the three unions at Kerr-McGee’s plants in Trona struck. It wasn’t the first strike in Trona. In 1941 there had been a three-month strike, and the plant had shut down. This time Kerr-McGee, of Karen Silkwood fame, was not about to shut the plant down. It fired striking employees and hired scabs, and supervisors worked twelve hour shifts.
Fear and its offshoots — hate, rage, and violence — washed through the town like a flash flood. The most valuable commodities that an isolated community has in times of trouble are self-sufficiency and cohesiveness. Trona lost its glue. Where once a foreman could warn a worker about the behavior of his errant son, where men dressed in tutus for the annual Fireman’s Ball, where the elected constable was also the chief of security for the company. And where the community swimming pool at Valley Wells was the living room for the town, now neighbor turned against neighbor, friend against friend, and families were split asunder.
The company fired more than 75 percent of its workforce, and some people lost their homes and cars. The strikers and their families retaliated. Women cursed and spat at the workers who entered the plant. Men were more furtive, burning homes to the ground and setting a bunkhouse across the street from the plant on fire. Company cars were stoned and overturned, All the windows in the administration building were broken. A bomb exploded under the bed of the small daughter of a couple who was working at the plant; no one was at home. A bomb went off in a local garage. The sewer lines were dynamited. In all, there were twenty bombing incidents.
Kerr-McGee requested the help of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Twenty uniformed sheriff’s deputies, a half-dozen detectives, and a part of the narcotics division worked around the clock, aided by the plant’s security force. They had little luck. Three-quarters of the way though the strike there were fifty-four arrests, but few convictions resulted. The problems in that small community of divided loyalties was hung juries.
Finally there were negotiations. Among those negotiating for the unions was Harry Bridges, the militant president of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union. Bridges urged the workers to accept the new contract. The one-hundred-fifteen-day strike ended in July, but the settlement did not provide for amnesty. A few years later there were no unions in Trona. “The Okies won,” said one old-times. “they had strikes before and they came out on top of the heap on this one.”
What was more a family than a town became just another community of transients. Many who still worked in Trona moved to Ridgecrest, where there were better schools and a McDonald’s. One by one the stores closed. The mobile homes were pulled off their pads and driven elsewhere. The wind blew the tumbleweed across the town’s vacant streets, and some lodged in the concertina-type barbed wire that ringed the exercise yard of the jails at the sheriff’s substation.
The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History by Philip Fradkin, University of California Press, 1995
Trona Bloody Trona: A Revolution in Microcosm by Paul Henry Abram, The Larry Czerwonka Company, July 2013