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The Chevron Strike Continues

By Shiva Mishek - Richmond Progressive Alliance, May 4, 2022

“To strike at a man's food and shelter is to strike at his life, and in a society organized on a tooth-and-nail basis, such an act, performed though it may be under the guise of generosity, is none the less menacing and terrible.”

—Jack London, The Scab, 1904

This week, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5 enters its seventh week on strike at the Richmond Chevron refinery. Over 500 Chevron employees have been on strike since March 21, rejecting a contract that would codify a meager raise, unsafe working conditions, and Chevron’s so-called “standby” policy.

Chevron would also like to drastically reduce death benefits and pay for the Lubrications plant refinery workers, thereby creating a two-tier wage system and offering wages that do not keep pace with inflation (a reduction from an annual 3% wage increase to .6%).

Refinery operations have continued by employing strikebreakers. Advertisements placed by Chevron offer pay of $70 an hour for non-union workers lacking adequate refinery experience, with the explicit mention of possible work for up to 5 months. Meanwhile, inflation has soared across the United States, and refinery workers must also contend with the skyrocketing costs of basic needs.

Unsurprisingly, the high cost of gas prices in California has been somewhat attributed to the labor action. The day the strike began, the Guardian wrote, “But if the strike were to halt operations at the refinery, that could negatively affect fuel prices in California, which already has the highest gas prices in the US at $5.86 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association.” Meanwhile, Chevron just reported earnings of $6.3 billion for the first quarter (Q1) of 2022, compared with $1.4 billion in earnings during Q1 of 2021. 

It’s typical to see workers villainized when they go on strike—teachers are depriving students of needed support; nurses and doctors are leaving patients to die in their hospital beds. But it is Chevron, not the workers, that has put Richmond at risk for decades. 

On the eve of the strike, USW negotiators offered Chevron management a “safe and orderly” shutdown of the refinery. This process would entail such safety measures as disposal and proper storage of toxic and volatile chemicals, as well as bringing temperatures to stable levels while workers weren’t on the job. Management said they would take it under advisement.

Some days later, Chevron management asked the union for a 48-hour turnover in the event of a strike. A turnover occurs during a shift change, when one shift supervisor “turns over” the plant to the next shift supervisor and informs the incoming worker on the status of the plant. The typical turnover time is 15 minutes.

According to BK White, President of USW Local 5, the 48-hour turnover request signifies that Chevron intends to staff the refinery with inexperienced replacements while workers are on strike. “Any trained worker should be able to take possession of the plant in 15 minutes. 48 hours is unheard of. That means they’re bringing in people who don’t know what they’re doing.”

A spike in flaring incidents since the strike began have borne out the union’s concerns. Over the past six weeks, community members and workers on the picket line have recorded flaring incidents at all times of day, sometimes occurring late at night. 

In an interview with laborvideo, White notes, “We always say that there’s enough technology in the refinery to run safely, but, you know, is there enough integrity? And that’s what we are, as a union. We stand as the conscience of these major corporations and don’t let them just shoot for profits.”

A major issue in the contract negotiations has been worker safety measures. While a refinery worker’s expected workweek is 42 hours, union representatives say it’s common for their members to work 72 hours per week. And, because production happens around the clock, refinery workers are scheduled according to rotating shifts, meaning that work schedules change from one shift to another on a rotating basis (a refinery worker may work two night shifts after two day shifts, for instance). It’s a schedule that maximizes industrial productivity and yet makes stable sleep and family life notoriously difficult to manage.

In January, Chevron wanted to introduce contract language allowing management to punish workers who refuse to come in when “called out,” or asked to work on their day off (after having worked their full 42-hour schedule). This “standby” policy is another ask USW found unacceptable. 

Richmond is truly a frontline community, meaning we are a city that experiences the “first and worst” consequences of climate change and the effects of heavily polluting industries. Nearly 80% of the community residents are people of color, 25% live below the federal poverty level, and a majority is working class. 

There are significant health impacts to being a frontline community. Richmond residents contend with disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Data from the California EPA places every community bordering the Chevron facility in the 99th percentile for asthma. We live with the risk of fires, spills, leaks, flaring, and toxic gas releases. 

The Chevron refinery explosion in 1999 sent hundreds of people to the hospital; the 2012 Chevron fire sent 15,000 people seeking medical treatment. It’s not uncommon to be outside walking and see huge plumes of black smoke beginning to cover the hills, right up the street from a Richmond elementary school. 

Chevron has successfully used a divide-and-conquer strategy between labor and grassroots organizations in Richmond. But how Chevron treats its workers inside the refinery gates reflects its treatment of the community. The refinery workers are a huge part of our community—it’s the biggest employer in town— and they live and work here, too. They breathe the same air, and they’re the ones who keep us safe from any refinery failures. So it’s not workers and then the community—we’re talking about community impacts as a whole when we talk about working conditions. 

We should work to bridge this relationship between labor and environmental justice. A green economy can be both community and worker-led. 

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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