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Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies?

By an anonymous ex-member of the IWW (with a response by Steve Ongerth) -, April 28, 2022

Editor's Note: Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases and demanded cuts in union staffing that focused on health and safety in the refinery. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). Meanwhile, USW Local 5 members have been picketing the refinery 24-7, and have been, at times, joined by members of the local BIPOC and/or environmental justice community. After IWW EUC cofounder and long-time Bay Area IWW General Membership Branch member, Steve Ongerth, brought a call for solidarity with the striking workers to the April branch meeeting, a disgruntled member (who has since resigned from the organization), sent the following letter to the branch (name deleted for privacy reasons).

Message from a Disgruntled (former) Member:

I’m sorry to say how disappointed I am in the IWW. I’m a relatively new wobbly and although I believe in standing in solidarity with fellow workers it seems at some point lines must be drawn.

As I’ve read through these last emails about the USW Local 5 and the call to action for us to stand with them as they strike, many questions come to mind. The first one is what if fellow climate activists, many of whom are wobblies were to implement a protest blockade to stall production of this refinery in defense of the environment? I wonder if those refinery workers with whom we are picketing would come outside and join our protest line? I also wonder if they would be interested in the invitation to join the 2022 Global Climate Strike that you forwarded to us? In both cases I assume it is reasonable to conclude they would not.

As wobblies, where do we draw the line? What if oil pipeline workers go to strike for hazard pay because a tribal nation, whose land the pipeline is planned to cross blocks safe access to thier jobsite in protest of the poisoning of thier waterways? Would the IWW Environmental Caucus also put a call out to picket with those Union workers? We draw the line when it comes to police unions who’s membership is hellbent on beating and imprisoning people protesting civil injustices. Why are we supporting refinery workers? This makes no sense. Iunderstand that just about every industry is to some degree tainted with These workers primary job is to process and prepare for market the product that’s catapulted us into the current global warming apocalyptic meltdown!

In a previous email you said “there’s a lot of potential for this to lead to stronger ties between the USW refinery workers and the environmental justice community…”

I would strongly disagree. USW refinery workers are paying rent, mortgages, sending thier kids to college off the back of big oil. Do you really think they are going to side with the environmental justice community down the road? The argument that helping these workers first get safer working conditions while simultaneously working towards building green industries for them to transition to is tantamount to believing in a fairytale. Anybody who thinks that these workers are going to suddenly see the light and quit thier job to install solar panels just because a few climate activists groups picketed with them is fooling themselves. These workers have been willfully brainwashed for years with the petroleum industry propaganda that global warming is junk science, liberal nutjob left wing lies and political fodder. To stay in an industry that is so environmentally destructive you have to accept and choose to believe the justification propaganda the industry boss’s feed you, or sell your soul to the dark-side and just not give a shit in exchange for the pay and benefits. Some people may change thier view and get out but that process takes a fundamental change of heart and mind. What we are doing by standing with them is helping solidify these workers conviction that big oil is the way to earn a good living to support your family “and look refinery workers… even environmentalists support you!”

I am most disappointed that this call for wobblies to stand in solidarity with the refinery workers is coming from the so called Environmental Caucus of IWW. I would understand if the call to action came from the general IWW and then wobblies like myself could debate the issue but the fact that it is coming from the Environmental Union Caucus leaves me bewildered! Why is the Environmental Union Caucus not leading this debate against standing with refinery workers in defense of the environment? I feel like I dropped off this planet and landed in bizarro world!

Steve you are the representative for the Environmental Caucus, yet you are promoting this solidarity stand with one of the environments (sic) biggest enemies. You listed several so-called climate justice activist groups in a previous email to bolster your opinion that “these workers are not the enemy.” I strongly disagree with that opinion. These refinery workers are the enemy and they are responsible for damage done to that surrounding community and the environment worldwide as they literally keep that refinery going. Those groups you listed do not necessarily represent all of us that proudly lay claim to being an environmental justice activist. I personally don’t know of any environmental justice activist folks that would dare draw the conclusion that these workers are not just as culpable as pipeline or oil rig workers in the damage done to the environment. To use the excuse that they are only workers and just doing thier job is the same bullshit cops and soldiers say after getting called out for thier atrocities when they say “we were just following orders.” Just as cops are the enemy of the common people and social justice, workers for big oil are the enemy of the environment. If every cop and soldier laid down thier arms and quit thier job police brutality and war would end. In much the same way big oil would come to a screeching halt if every oil rig and refinery worker on the planet quit thier jobs. That is how important refineries are to the oil cartel, and that is how important refinery workers are in keeping those refineries operational. By picketing with them, wobblies are in effect helping them to keep this planet killing machine, the petroleum industry, aka “big oil” going forward.

To quote you one last time Steve,

“Climate catastrophe is the ultimate form of precarity. There are no jobs on a doomed planet.”

At this point, I must draw my own line and relinquish my membership in the IWW.

I realize that the Environmental Union Caucus is technically an unofficial group but the IWW supports it and allows it to use the IWW forum so I don’t really see any difference.

Sincerely, a very disappointed wobbly who believes that if we hope to “survive” to see the fruition of a worldwide revolution of workers controlling the workplace, two words are paramount. Earth First!

Response by Steve Ongerth:

Dear -----:

I am sorry for your disappointment, and wish you the best whatever your decision ultimately winds up being. You are certainly entitled to your opinion. 

It might help you to understand that my opinion is neither the official position of the IWW nor that of the IWW Environmental Union Caucus (which, being a caucus has no mandate to take any official position in any case).

It might help to know a little bit about my history:

I joined the IWW in 1995. The individual who inspired me to join was Judi Bari. She was both an Earth First!er and an IWW member. She believed—and I agree—that the timber workers who were employed by the companies clearcutting the redwoods in northwestern California that she and other Earth First!ers were trying to save were not the enemy either. She managed to earn the trust of a good number of those timber workers (some of them even joined the IWW and published an underground newspaper with the help of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney that was both pro worker and pro-old growth preservation). She even managed to convince a logger named Ernie Pardini (also an IWW member for a time) to conduct a tree sit. Judi and the northwestern IWW branch had timber workers and Earth First!ers as members. At no time did Judi ever discourage continued direct action against clearcutting, but at no time did she regard the workers as the enemy. I have written extensively about this (and you can read it at if you like). 

I worked with Judi Bari for two years (1995-97) and learned much from her wisdom. In fact, much of what I do and most of my green unionism (as I call it) owes itself to her teaching and mentorship. Many of the words I speak could just have easily been imparted by her.

Later, after Judi passed away in 1997 from cancer, some Earth Fisrt!ers joined the USW while on strike at Kaiser Aluminum (because they had a common adversary: the Maxxam corporation and its slimy capitalist stock manipulating CEO, Charles Hurwitz). Later, some of those USW members came to Humboldt County and tried to convince the Pacific Lumber timber workers to join the USW and take a stand against Hurwitz. I helped make that happen. 

Judi Bari was the chief inspiration for the formation of the caucus nearly a decade ago. You see, I am one of its three cofounders.

It might help you to know some of the facts on the ground, too:

Those refinery workers you would so quickly dismiss? They’re members of the USW.

While they might not join the climate strikes (just yet), the local that represents the workers at the Richmond Refinery did endorse the California Climate Jobs Plan, and that’s no small thing. They largely want to see a just transition to a post carbon economy. 

In fact, it was a member of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (which later merged with the USW), Tony Mazzochi, who coined the term “just transition” (right around the same time that Judi Bari was doing her thing in NW California).

In fact, I think some USW members went to Standing Rock as part of the Labor Camp (I cofounded Labor for Standing Rock also).

And as for climate justice activists, there have been no shortage of them joining the picket line in solidarity with the refinery workers (indeed, they actually get out there more than I, since I am pretty busy). These have included BIPOC folks from Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Sunrise Movement (whose workers are union, BTW), and the Richmond Progressive Alliance. They have also included Richmond City Council members Claudia Jimenez and Eduardo Martinez who are about as green-left as you can get (for politicians, anyway). Joining them have been Extinction Rebellion, Sunflower Alliance, Sierra Club (also unionized, BTW), 350 folks, and others. This hasn’t been lost on the refinery workers who appreciate the solidarity (and relish in the fact that the support has freaked out their bosses). Some of these USW refinery workers have joined in on podcasts, produced by the BIPOC RPA members and discussed “just transition” and climate.

These climate justice and front line community folks know that it is the refinery workers who do everything they can to prevent the capitalist profiteering by the bosses from making things worse (by trying to prevent safety hazards and environmentally harmful practices). In fact, when the Richmond Refinery fire of August 2012 happened, it resulted from lax safety practices and corner cutting by management and the bosses, which the workers tried to correct (some revealed this later as reported by the Chemical Safety Board). One of the issues that has promoted this particular strike is that the bosses are trying to (further) cut union safety positions which act as a check against even more unadulterated greed and profiteering.

Those same activists aren’t going to stop trying to end fossil fuel extractivism. They make no apologies for their stance on this matter, but they also don’t see the workers as their enemies.

While it’s true that this is far from a general strike with the ultimate demand being either shutting down the refinery or immediately transforming it into something other than a fossil fuel extractivist facility, that doesn’t mean such things are beyond the realm of possibility. Stranger things have happened. For example, if you spent some time looking over the documents we have compiled on the IWW EUC website,, you’d have encountered many texts documenting everything I have just said. You’d also learn about the Australian Green Bans, the Lucas Aerospace Workers, or the Porta Maghera Workerist Group, all of which were militant (though small scale) examples of green syndicalism in practice, led by the very workers you might presume—at first glance—to be enemies of the environment.

All of these green syndicalist efforts were also chief inspirations for the founding of the caucus. 

The purpose of the caucus is to try and educate working class folks (IWW members or not) how to navigate through what may seem like unbridgeable chasms, but those chasms are largely the creation of the capitalist class. 

However, if you feel like this is a line you can’t cross, I won’t try and force you to do so. 

But it’s clear to me that you never really bothered to find out what it is, what it does, and what it seeks to achieve. And, I regret that I haven’t done a better job of presenting that initially. Mea culpa. 

Finally, it might help you to also know that a small handful of IWW members have denounced the caucus as being nothing more than a bunch of “tree hugging activist hippies” (clearly that isn’t the case, either). Really, everyone would do well to look past their preconceptions. But that is up to them. I can only help that I can offer a less narrow perspective on all of this. 

To donate to the strike and solidarity fund, send contributions (by check) made out to:
"USW Local 5",
1333 Pine Street, #A,
Martinez, CA 94553.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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