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Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies? - Part 2

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, May 25, 2022

For context and background, see part one, here. Unlike the first installment, this second response has ommitted the comments that preciptated it, for the sake of clarity, as well as the fact that the author tried to echo the rebutted points in the response. It should be noted that only one individual has expressed outright opposition to showing solidarity with striking refinery workers. It's a foregone conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the IWW does not share this one individual's view.

First of all, let me be clear: my position is that humanity must collectively phase out burning fossil fuels for energy, transportation, and locomotion as rapidly as possible.

That said, nobody seriously believes we can collectively cease burning fossil fuels in a single day, so the likelihood is that the burning of them will continue for some time (I aim to make that as little time as possible).

Regardless of how long it takes, no oil refinery is going to simply shut down just because large masses of people, even 3.5% of the population demand it. It’s not even technically possible, let alone economically or politically possible. Most of the Environmental Justice and Climate Justice organizations (other than a few ultra-sectarian extremists) get this, and they’ve crafted their demands accordingly.

While there’s a degree of variation among the various organizing, most of them call for the following:

  1. No new extraction of new fossil fuel sources;
  2. Rapid phase out of existing fossil fuel sources;
  3. Managed decline of the existing fossil fuel supply chain;
  4. Just transition for any and all affected workers in the entire fossil fuel supply chain;
  5. Repurposing of equipment for non fossil fuel burning purposes;
  6. Bioremediation of damaged ecosystems across the extraction supply chain;
  7. Reparations for the affected communities and tribes.

Supporting refinery workers involved in a strike is not in any way contradictory to the above demands.

Furthermore, at the risk of stating the bleedingly obvious: oil refineries are not oil extraction facilities. The oil processed there has already been extracted, and if it’s not refined there, it’ll likely be refined somewhere else, and that will have no appreciable difference on the level of consumption. Proof of this is the fact that the PES refinery was shuttered in Pennsylvania a few years ago—suddenly, without substantial warning to the workers or community—and yet, there was no corresponding appreciable drop in worldwide consumption.

Additionally, not all of the oil produced in refineries is ultimately burned. Some oil is used for lubricants, as one, young woman USW Local 5 member and striker recently noted while on the picket line in Richmond.

(One of the concessions being demanded by Chevron management is a two-tier wage agreement with the lube oil workers as being “second class”.) Heck, some oil is even used in medical applications. So it’s overstating the case substantially to claim that these workers are responsible for “burning the planet”.

But let’s not stop there. As stated in the above demands, the refinery could conceivably be repurposed as there is a managed decline of fossil fuel burning and extraction. Some suggestions include retooling the facility to process biofuels (though these are, in many cases, almost as problematic, but more about that later) or hydrogen (again, not without a great many pitfalls, and the devil is in the details), or still something else. Ultimately, if it’s not realistically possible to convert the facility to genuinely green purposes, it still has to be methodically decommissioned, and doing that will take years (or even decades), even if it doesn’t process so much as a single additional drop of oil. Either way, who better to do that work than the already skilled and employed refinery workers?

The key point here is that these workers skills are transferable. While I’m no expert, it’s well known that many refinery workers could be retrained (without too much effort) to work in water filtration or sanitation facilities or geothermal plants, just as building trades workers building fracked gas pipelines can be employed repairing fresh water, sewage, and storm water pipelines, or offshore oil workers can instead work as offshore wind workers. The skill is the important thing, not necessarily the application of that skill.

Further, the union in question is not the “United Oilworkers Union”, it’s the “United Steelworkers Union”. That union represents a hell of a lot more than oil refinery workers. In fact, USW already represents workers employed in the construction (and sometimes maintenance) of wind power facilities as well as other “green” jobs.

In response to the claims that these workers are willing collaborators in the burning of our planet, I assure you that this belief is mistaken. While the 500 or so striking workers that comprise the USW Local 5 bargaining unit at Chevron are not monolithic in their views, and some may indeed ignorantly believe that global warming is either naturally caused or a hoax, it’s not the entirety or even a majority that believe this. And while it’s likely true that a larger block believe that a complete phaseout of fossil fuels isn’t necessary, the probability is that the majority also don’t accept that reasoning.

The proof of the pudding is in the fact that USW Local 5, as well as two other USW Locals were among the original 19 unions that heartily endorsed the California Climate Jobs Plan (aka “The Pollin Report”), and what’s more, they probably had a hand in writing it. While the proposal isn’t perfect, it does check most of the boxes listed above (and to be certain, I read it). Further, various members and officials from USW Local 5 have made statements, either publicly or in the picket line that back this up. They generally know that decarbonization and transition is inevitable (though there may be some question about the timeline), so it’d better be a just transition.

And lest anyone think that even workers in the oil, gas, shale, and tar sands fields (etc.) are all completely complicit in the ongoing destruction of our Earth, I assure that this belief is also mistaken. On the IWW EUC website is a link to a Canadian based, union worker run organization called Iron & Earth, whose mission it is to push for decarbonization, retooling, and worker retraining in the fossil fuel industry (particularly tar sands) to a genuinely green alternative.

Closer to home, USW Local 675–another union that has endorsed the California Climate Jobs Plan—has lobbied for state funding to retrain its members to cap orphan wells, thus addressing a festering problem of capitalist outsourcing of their damage to the community. Again, these workers have the best skills for the job.

It’s just not factual that workers in “Industrial Union 220” are all uncaring ecocidal robots. As for them joining the IWW, I’m not aware of any in that industry wishing to join at present (regardless of their ecological consciousness), but I would oppose any move to exclude them. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s wrong to punish those anti capitalist oil workers who do wish to join—and it’s entirely likely that any such workers would also be ecologically conscious. More importantly: if they joined, and wished to join the EUC, it’s probably a given that their goal would be to form a dual-card union block in already unionized bargaining units, or a green block within either IWW or non-unionized shops to try and push for decarbonization and/or transition from within!

As for comparison of that to police (and/or Nazis), that’s an absurd, reductionist argument. Police (and/or Nazis) aren’t eligible to join the IWW. Oil workers are. If one has problems with that, I’d remind them that, especially under capitalism, every industry has some varying degree of colonialist or extractivist taint. Do we exclude everyone? Where should one draw the line? Is an oil worker, particularly one that wants to decarbonize and transform the industry worse than, say, a healthcare worker, a tree planter, or even a teacher who supports Trump or US (or Russian) imperialism? The latter do exist (I speak from direct experience).

I would be willing to consider amending the IWW Constitution to include provisions strongly encouraging that workplace struggles incorporate ecological considerations in addition to economic (for the good of the working class), but that would have to be carefully considered. Some members might be primitivists or anti-civ. Some might be vegan fundamentalists. Some might be pro-nuclear power. Again, the devil is in the details.

And let’s consider the alternative. Suppose we don’t support the strike?

For one thing, the Bay Area IWW and/or the IWW Environmental Union Caucus would be turning their noses up at workers the environmental justice community—those with the most direct stake in the phasing out of the fossil fuel economy and energy system—had been consistently supporting. We’d find few—if any supporters among them for such an ideologically purist stance.

Members of various (mostly BIPOC led) climate justice groups and progressive community organizations, including Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Idle No More, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), and Sunflower Alliance, not to mention Amazon Watch, emocratic Socialists of America (DSA), 350, Sierra Club, Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion have all consistently supported the striking workers. Just a few weeks ago, Greenpeace members and refinery workers conducted a kayaktavist picket in the bay at the Richmond Longwharf (which the maritime unions honored).

At this very instant, various Contra Costa County based, BIPOC led climate justice organizations are planning for the Bay Area anti-Chevron day on May 21, and they’re crafting the messaging to be supportive of striking workers as well as inviting them to speak (and they just might). And, yes, I’m involved in those efforts, but the most vocal push for building those bridges isn’t coming from me—a white, cishet, male union worker—it’s coming from black and brown community members who live even closer to the Chevron Refinery than I do. What makes them wrong, and those that decry solidarity with the workers right? An injury to one is an injury to all, after all!

The climate justice organizations as well as the more mainstream environmental organizations have supported the strike because they’re keenly aware that it’s better to have unionized workers—particularly those like the USW who actually give a shit about climate and the environment, with strong health and safety language in their contract, especially including language that allows them to refuse blatantly unsafe work, such as the sort of work that would result in catastrophic refinery fires—than a bunch of poorly trained, overworked, unskilled nonunion scabs putting the community at much greater risk of a massive destructive accident.

Further, the moves that this and other California based USW locals have made to support decarbonization and just transition are gestures the climate justice and environmental organizations appreciate, even if there’s not (yet) complete agreement on what that ultimately looks like. Deepening the ties of solidarity and building trust between two (or more) constituencies the capitalist class seeks to divide-and-conquer increases the likelihood of achieving that goal.

That said, the climate justice organizations and environmental groups aren’t about to pull any punches in continuing to push for decarbonization and a truly just energy transition that’s free of false, greenwashing solutions. The aforementioned organizations are not willing to fall for the fossil fuel capitalists’ attempts to substitute biofuels (most likely harvested from large scale industrial monoculture agribusiness owned land grabs in the Global South), or blue, grey, brown, black, or pink hydrogen.

For example: the nearby ConocoPhillips Refinery in Rodeo and the Marathon Refinery in Martínez are applying local regulatory agencies to introduce biofuels under a green-capitalist cloak. The same organizations supporting striking workers at Chevron are opposing these greenwashing proposals (as am I), but the unions support them. While this push is coming primarily from the Building Trades (who have a larger representation at the Rodeo and Martínez facilities than at Chevron), who—for the most part—are far less green than the USW, the USW still supports their introduction. None of that has prevented the greens from making common cause with USW Local 5 on the Chevron picket line.

And, I would caution against describing some of the aforementioned NGOs as “counterrevolutionary”. They’re reformist, certainly, but “reformist” ≠ “counterrevolutionary”. The former tries to incrementally reform the existing system (an unlikely prospect at best, but not without value if it shifts the Overton Window leftwards) whereas the latter actively seeks to undermine revolutionary gains already made shifting the (Overton Window rightwards). Both the Sierra Club and 350 have their flaws and limitations, but both of them have unionized staff who’ve actively supported union struggles. Sierra Club staffers assisted the UAW’s attempts to organize the workers at Tesla, whereas 350 routinely supports union transit workers in their efforts. Reformist, yes—though not entirely valueless—counterrevolutionary? Certainly not in the current moment. And the moment matters. For all of the pretensions of the Third International (COMINTERN), it ultimately proved itself to be counterrevolutionary in Spain in 1936, undermining the gains made by anarchists, syndicalists, and revolutionary socialists, thus paving the way for Franco’s fascist reaction.

In any given moment any of the organizations supporting the refinery workers could play any one of those roles. It all depends on how history unfolds.

But let’s suppose the strike fails and the union gets busted. Don’t believe anyone if they tell you that “this will never happen”, because it almost did happen at an Exxon Refinery in Beaumont, Texas (and it involved another USW local). The refinery won’t shut down. The use of fossil fuels won’t decrease as a direct result. And, Chevron will only be more emboldened to continue their profiteering ecocidal rampage, as will Exxon and all the other fossil fuel capitalists. To deflect blame, Chevron might even claim that California’s “burdensome” environmental regulation and/or overzealous drive to decarbonize were responsible. Some workers might believe such “spoon fed propaganda”, especially if the climate and environmental justice community leaves them high and dry.

All of this begs a deeper question: what’s the alternative? What will it take to shut down the fossil fuel industry? Certainly a large enough blockade could theoretically achieve that, and if such a thing were to happen, the role of green unionists would be to negotiate terms of a just transition for the affected workers. But let’s get real: such a blockade would have to be massive, spanning across every continent. It would require hundreds of thousands of participants willing to maintain it for an indefinite amount of time. It would require at least five to ten times as many people conducting logistical support. It would have to devise a defense against the inevitable use of police and military force by the state. And where would the workers likely come down in such an instance? Chances are good, in fact almost certain, that if they’re not involved in organizing it, they’d oppose it. And, when the blockade ultimately peters out—which is almost certain to happen—the workers will then retain zero trust in the community.

I speak from direct experience having been involved in several such efforts, including those organized (in part) by Judi Bari. I invoked her name not to attempt cheap street “cred”, but to demonstrate the benefit of experience. And the reason why Judi’s efforts didn’t catch on weren’t because they “failed”. They didn’t, actually. The reason they didn’t ultimately achieve their goal was that far too many Earth First!ers were hostile to them, because they couldn’t get past seeing timber workers as “enemies”.

Judi Bari had a very difficult set of circumstances to work with, too. A half decade before she got involved in the timber wars in northwestern California, the unions that represented the mill workers was mostly busted by the Louisiana Pacific corporation. Meanwhile, while there had been some attempts by greens and Earth First!ers like Darryl Cherney to show solidarity with timber workers wherever possible, their lack of union backgrounds made that much more difficult (Judi had a substantial union background prior to her moving to California in the early 1980s). Furthermore, the messages and attitudes shown towards the timber workers by radical ecologists (inside and outside of Earth First!) in northwestern California (and Southern Oregon) was mixed, and elsewhere mostly hostile.

In spite of that, Judi was actually quite successful at winning a sizable number of them over. While none of that led to (re)unionization, much less open green syndicalist revolution, it was effective in shattering the environmentalists versus job myth, to a point. It resulted in a great many timber workers feeding information to Earth First! (including effective blockade targets) on the sly. While it didn’t save every parcel of old growth forest intended, it probably did save Headwaters, Cahto, and Enchanted Meadow. Had Judi lived (instead of succumbing to cancer in 1997), the efforts might’ve enjoyed greater success. Had so many Earth First!ers not been so stubbornly against her strategy, it very likely would have yielded much better results. I’ve written an entire book about this, you know!

And, I emphasize, at no point did Judi Bari argue against continued and sustained direct action in the forests while attempting to build trust among timber workers. Yes, she called for renouncing tree spiking (which doesn’t work anyway) and argued that monkeywrenching should only ever be done on the sly—but not towards the timber worker’s equipment (because it didn’t effect the corporate pocketbook anyway, given that the timber workers were contract labor who has to purchase their own equipment and bid for timber harvests), and she argued that the targets should be strategic, but at no time did she attempt to deradicalize or demobilize the movement (in spite of the claims to the contrary made by her detractors).

You see, there’s a widely believed myth, held primarily by insurrectionist ecologists, that if “militant direct action” was allowed to occur “without constraints imposed by the peace cops, NGOs, and the non-violence cultists” the blockades would win easily. That view is deeply mistaken. Not a single long term, large scale blockadia type campaign doesn’t go down without at least somebody making that claim or writing an anonymous screed that gets published on Anarchist News (or even the usually much more responsible It’s Going Down on a bad day) to that effect. But there’s zero historical evidence to support such claims.

That’s not to say such tactics should never be used. It’s a matter of appropriate time, place, and conditions. While it’s not always possible to know all of those in every detail, two almost certainly essential prerequisites are (1) support from the community (quite often these anonymous screed writers are not locals, or if they are they’ve zero credibility among local organizers); (2) support from a significant block of the affected workers (at least tacitly).

In most cases those prerequisites are lacking, and most such attempts fail spectacularly. If it takes 100,000s to sustain a successful blockade, it takes at least several thousand saboteurs (with the support of the former) to have any lasting impact that’s not met with violent state repression. On the other hand, the bosses and the state are deeply constrained if the workers use the power at the point of production (or destruction) to shut down the machines.

Even if an insurrection employing militant, even violent direct action tactics should manage to succeed without either community or worker support, what happens next? The equipment and facilities remain. The toxic waste remains. The capital blight and pollution remains. Someone has to clean that up! And, the facilities and equipment must be methodically decommissioned, again, who’s more skilled to do that work than the workers who hitherto used the equipment?

And what happens when we magically shut down the fossil fuel supply chain? What replaces it? Who does the work to build it, run it, service it, maintain it, upgrade it, etc.?

Ultimately, the key to decarbonization (or even de-industrialization, if that’s your persuasion—though it’s not entirely mine) still lies at the point of production (or destruction). Without a large movement of workers seizing control of that, we’re not likely to get very far. That said, I wholeheartedly agree that we can’t stop there. Some industries absolutely have to be abolished. Fossil fuel extractivism is near the top of the list. Most others have to be radically transformed. The status quo is certainly not sustainable. How that will ultimately play out is something I wouldn’t try to predict, exactly, though one IWW member, Jess Grant (who—along with Judi Bari and Utah Phillips—was responsible for adding the “and live in harmony with the Earth” section to the Preamble to the IWW Constitution, a change the membership ratified in 1992, and is the only amendment made to that document since its first and only other change in 1908), did write an article for the Industrial Worker in the 1990s on that very subject.

You will note that he, too, argued some industrial unions would need to be phased out, but at no time did he argue against workers from those industries joining the OBU in order to make the transformation.

We shouldn’t either, any more than we should turn our backs on the striking Chevron refinery workers.

Epilogue: Anti-Chevron Day in Richmond went as planned, with many EJ and Climate Justice activists speaking on Chevron's atrocities. Every speaker, including keynote speaker, Steven Donzinger, emphasized the need to show solidarity with the refinery workers and excoriated Chevron for their greed and refusal to agree to the workers demands. David Solnit designed the chalk painting seen in the image at the beginning of the article. Following the rally, when Chevron management tried to powerwash the street mural away, striking USW Local 5 workers stopped them from doing so. This is what green unionism looks like!

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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