by Ragina Johnson
Socialist Worker (U.S.)
Some 5,000 union members represented by the United Steelworkers (USW) are on strike at 11 refineries in six states, and counting. Workers at BP refineries in Whiting, Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio, joined the strike this week. The union could bring out more than 30,000 workers at 63 refineries plus related oil terminals, pipelines and petrochemical facilities, which would dramatically affect oil production.
The oil workers are fighting energy giants who put their multibillion-dollar profits ahead of the health and safety of their employees and the surrounding communities, whom they treat as disposable. Workers are demanding that the oil corporations address safety issues on the job, including forced overtime and outsourcing of work to contractors.
The strike comes amid a growing climate justice movement–a movement that is also challenging the fossil fuel industry. These corporations are poisoning our drinking water, filling our soil with toxic waste, and polluting the air we breathe.
Tesoro, Shell, Chevron, Exxon and other oil affiliates have blood on their hands. The most recent example is the explosions on trains transporting crude oil through towns and cities–trains that eventually bring crude oil to these refineries. The very plants where workers are squaring off with their bosses–in Anacortes, Washington, and Richmond, California, for example–have been the sites of explosions and fires that killed workers and exposed communities to deadly toxic chemicals.
At the extraction end, this industry sucks vital natural resources from the ground–specifically on Native lands, violating treaty rights of First Nations or surrounding working-class communities and farms–as it increases CO2 emissions that are burning up our planet.
Thus, some activists in the climate justice movement have asked why they should support workers in an industry that is the root cause of all these ills. While groups like 350.org, the Sierra Club and others have called on their members to support the strikers, some radicals are asking whether they should call for the destruction of the industry instead, and move ahead with the transition to renewable energy facilities like wind, solar and thermal. Can we be in solidarity with the workers, they ask, given their demands don’t talk outright about climate change, global warming and the need to get rid of an industry that currently puts food on their tables?
The answer should be yes to all these questions. We should be in active solidarity and support the strike if we ever hope to have a real transition out of fossil fuels. Our enemies are the corporations endangering all our lives, not the workers.
For years, activists and organizations have been fighting to stop the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline as part of the project of slowing climate change and the destruction of our planet and ecosystems. There have been mass arrests, direct actions, marches and demonstrations of all kinds, including the historic march that brought together over 300,000 to New York City in fall of 2014. People have come up with all sorts of creative tactics for blockades against the oil giants, including First Nations using their treaties and sovereignty rights to not allow the pipelines completion within and around their territories.
This movement has slowed the construction of the KXL section of the pipeline, which is a victory, but during this time, other pipelines have been built or updated, and thedangerous transportation of Bakken crude oil by rail has dramatically increased.
Corporations have, in essence, worked around our blockades. Our movement had not yet had the social and political force to confront the capitalist class that has restructured its economy and filled its bank accounts with revenues from the extraction and refinement of cheap fossil fuels, including fracked oil and gas.
Cheap energy is being used to reduce operating costs for the government and businesses, and just as importantly, U.S. oil companies are selling this black gold abroad. The abundance of cheap fuel isn’t about helping consumers run our vehicles more affordably (although many working and poor people have sighed in relief as the prices have dropped). Politicians like Gov. Jerry Brown in California would liked us all to think all oil and gas production goes to U.S. consumers, as he pushes fracking alongside renewable energy programs in California.
The U.S. has become the top oil producer in the world churning out over 14 million barrels of oil per day, surpassing Saudi Arabia’s 11.7 million barrels. Big Oil has been one of the most profitable industries, despite increasing economic and political instability internationally with the price of oil commodities falling due to massive overproduction.
The U.S. oil barons’ success has come not only at the expense of taking vital resources out of the earth in deadly proportions. Their profits have also come on the backs of the workers in the plants, factories and oil fields–and at the expense of communities that live and work around these plants and pipelines.
Throughout U.S. economy, corporations have forced workers to labor for longer hours and at faster rates, hiring contractors and temporary workers, instead of more full-time employees, pushing the increase of privatized health care costs onto workers, and attempting to smash unions’ collective bargaining rights. This all has been part of the recipe book of austerity and neoliberal practices of the corporate elites, as their cheap solution for getting out of the economic crisis. Even when profits return, as the Bay Area tech boom has shown, wages stagnate.
That is, unless there’s a fightback — especially by a section of the organized working class within unions.
The Steelworkers’ fight for better working conditions and against what is termed “lean production” has to be understood in terms of the overall attack on working people today. In essence, these strikers can show the rest of the working class how to fight back in a period of lowered standards of living and working conditions.
Dave Martin, vice president of the local striking the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, told Labor Notes: “As you get older, it takes more time to recover, a day off here and there helps, but it doesn’t heal you up enough to where you are 100 percent. If they staffed this refinery, it would create 150 to 200 full-time jobs in our community.”
“The fatigue issue has been a very big problem in this industry, that problem has consistently gotten worse,” said another union official. “These companies are trying to run very lean.”
It’s not hard to see how the conditions of an expanding industry that doesn’t hire enough workers to do the job can cause an increase of fatalities as well as man-made environmental catastrophes. In 2012 alone, 138 workers were killed on the job while extracting, producing or supporting oil and gas. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 823 oil and gas extraction workers died on the job between 2003 and 2010–seven times worse than the rate for all U.S. industries combined. An August 2012 fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, was caused by decades of health and safety violations by the company.
For a long time, some radical activists have argued that “overpaid union members who don’t live in the communities” can’t be seen as part of the solution of confronting environmental pollution. Instead, nonprofits and left electoral strategies have attempted to take on Chevron by themselves.
The demands of the USW strike confront these myths about U.S. oil workers somehow being “outside” our struggle, and instead show how union workers can strengthen the climate justice movement’s ability to take on the oil giants.
The climate justice movement should take up a slogan that paraphrases one popularized by the Chicago Teachers Union during their strike in 2012: “USW members’ working conditions are our living conditions.”
During the 2012 strike, the union connected the demands of striking Chicago teachers with those of Chicago’s working-class parents and students with the slogan “Our teaching conditions are your kids’ learning conditions.” Likewise, we in the climate justice movement have to see how our struggles are connected and how we can’t win without solidarity.
In Richmond and surrounding cities like Martinez, oil refineries have been under the spotlight for their deadly contribution to pollution for years, which has to be seen as environmental racism and an attack on the whole working class. As Socialist Worker reported:
“Chevron’s record doesn’t stop at industrial accidents. Since April 2009, the refinery has been in noncompliance with the Clean Water Act and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. It has also been in “high-priority violation” of Clean Air Act standards since 2010. It has had nearly a 100 citations since 2007 and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
“The fire inflamed already bitter opinions in a city that has three times the national rates for asthma, and where one-third of children can be expected to at some point go to the hospital for respiratory problems. Richmond also has significantly higher rates for cancer and other chronic diseases. Of the people living within three miles of the refinery, up to 85 percent live under the federal poverty line and a similar percentage are minorities.”
What is often not discussed is the health of the workers who are in the plants surrounded by toxins and whose lifespan is reduced by exposure to pollution on the job.
This fact has not been lost on the nurses who have been supporting the strike. On the picket line in Martinez, members of the California Nurses Association talked to workers who told stories of “how they’ve had acid spilled on them, including one who says Tesoro still hasn’t paid for the medical bills.”
Nurses have been a central force in the labor movement, connecting the fight for workers’ rights to the fight for climate justice and against the fossil fuel extraction drive. In a press release, the National Nurses United (NNU) stated:
“The hard line adopted by the wealthy oil corporations is symbolic of what nurses and other working people experience on a regular basis in an environment where workers’ rights and livelihood as well as public health and safety are too often jeopardized by voracious employers and the politicians who support them.
“NNU members have already stood with USW members on picket lines at various locations in this fight, and we will continue to offer our solidarity. We also call on our elected officials to demand the oil giants, who receive so much economic and political assistance from government, stop their attack on the oil workers and reach a fair settlement that respects the workers’ rights as well as public safety.”
Forty years ago, during a period of increased class struggle, the central role of workers in the environmental movement wasn’t a question. From mining communities in the Appalachian Mountains, to struggles against uranium in the Black Hills in South Dakota, to the organizing against energy corporations in the Navajo Nation, people connected the struggle for better working and living conditions to larger political fights. Environmentalists, farmers, workers, families and communities organized a multiracial, class-based movement as a united front to take on energy corporations and the U.S. government.
One hidden example of this history is the story of the Navajo miners told in the book Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples. Authors Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen write:
“Many Navajos who had been forced off their land and into employment in power plants or oil refineries went on strike. The strikes sparked occupations of some work places, as community residents often joined the workers. For example, a Texaco oil refinery in Aneth, Utah, on the northern edge of the reservation, was occupied by workers and their families during April 1978. The occupants demanded that Texaco agree to keep its white employees from bringing alcoholic beverages onto the reservation, dismiss employees from carrying side arms on the reservation, reclaim land damaged by oil drilling, compensate Navajo families who suffered losses due to oil drilling (including water wells which had been damaged), preserve Navajo burial sites, and give Navajo people preference in hiring at drilling sites.
“To resist expropriation of Navajo resources under cover of a domestic energy crisis, the growing grassroots resistance in Navajo country expanded into a large popular movement during the 1970s.”
On February 7, an estimated 8,000 people marched in Oakland to pressure Gov. Brown to stop fracking in California. Imagine if this protest had targeted the refinery and led a picket of thousands to support the workers?
This is what our movement should be thinking about. If the workers win their demands, it will be a victory for the climate justice movement as whole — and we need to show them our solidarity. While we’re on the picket line, we need to listen to workers talk about what they face inside this industry as we point our anger at the oil bosses together. It’s here that we can create the basis for a much larger discussion on how to break down the false division that we have to choose between jobs and feeding our families, and whether the planet burns or we die early from pollution.
We can also start to have a discussion and learn from the very people who have the ability and agency to concretely take on the demand of the movement–transitioning out of fossil fuels.
Frankly, we are kidding ourselves in the climate justice movement if we think we can get around this by just blockading trains and pipelines in civil disobedience. I wish it wasn’t this hard. The oil giants will continue to go around us, unless we confront them with a more central force in the industry.
We are up against a mighty giant, really the whole capitalist system. Fossil fuels are a central foundation to the whole of society from transportation of goods to people, to packaging and production of commodities. Just look at the history of how the auto industry and big oil destroyed pubic transportation and you get a sense of the battle that lies ahead.
We have to build our giant. We have much of the ingredients we need to build a more powerful movement — from indigenous activists and coalitions, to students, to communities groups and people of color fighting environmental racism. Now we have the missing vital element — a collective of workers out on strike in the very industry we’re all fighting against.