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Economic Update: The Challenge of Progressive Unionism

Iran oil workers’ strike: a spectre haunting neoliberalism

By Simon Pirani - People and Nature, July 16, 2021

More than 60,000 Iranian oil workers have joined a strike for better pay and contracts – the biggest such action since the general strike of 1978-79 that helped toppled the Shah’s regime.

The stoppage is supported by teachers, pensioners, and families seeking justice for their relatives killed during the big wave of protests in November 2019.

The protest began on 19 June, the day after the elections won by the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who takes over as president next month.

The Iranian oil industry is dominated by the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company. But in recent years it has employed a host of contractors – many owned and controlled by state officials and their relatives – who have slashed pay levels and undermined working conditions.

The Strike Organisation Council for Oil Contract Workers, that has been set up during the action, is reported to have said that the workers’ main demand is higher wages, and added:

We will no longer tolerate poverty, insecurity, discrimination, inequality and deprivation of our basic human rights. Given the skyrocketing cost of expenses, the [monthly] wages of workers should not be less than 12 million tomans ($491).

The strikers are demanding the elimination of temporary contracts, an end to the use of contract companies and the recognition of the right to form independent unions, according to other reports.

The strike is supported both by contract employees and by skilled workers in less precarious jobs, according to interviews published by the Kayhan Life media outlet.

Iranian Oil Workers Organize the Country’s Biggest Strikes since the Iranian Revolution

By Maryam Alaniz and Salvador Soler - Left Voice, July 15, 2021

For almost a month, Iranian oil workers, along with workers in other industries, have organized demonstrations and wildcat strikes in response to a dire economic and health crisis accentuated by U.S. sanctions.

A nationwide strike by Iranian oil and gas workers on fixed-term contracts — which started a day after the June 18 Iranian presidential elections — has spread to 112 oil, gas, and petrochemical companies in at least eight of the provinces that house Iran’s main oil and gas centers. The strikes are the biggest workers’ protest since the oil workers’ strikes in late 1978, which brought the U.S.-backed shah’s regime to its knees.

The widespread demonstrations underscore the growing economic pressures placed on a country that is living under crippling U.S. sanctions and that is facing a fifth wave of the pandemic. In the past month more than 120,000 mostly temporary and contract workers have taken part in the strike. They have refused to work and joined rallies and hunger strikes outside Iran’s strategic refineries and power plants.

These workers’ demands include an increase in wages as inflation rises, wages that are paid on time, and back pay. Many workers complain that they haven’t been paid in months. The workers are also demanding better working conditions, improved health and safety standards, and freedom of association and protest. Their main demands, however, are to end contract employment, to ban the firing of workers, to reinstate the 700 protesting workers who were recently fired, and to abolish special economic zones, which allow employers to skirt labor protections.

The workers have also called for independent organizations of the working class across all sectors of labor. Since independent unions are not recognized in Iran, the wildcat strike action is coordinated by strike committees, including the Council for Organizing Contract Oil Workers’ Protests, which organizes 41,000 contract workers in the oil industry. The workers, mainly contracted scaffolders, fitters, welders, and electricians, have announced that they will not return to work unless their demands are met.

The growth of strikes by oil and petrochemical workers — the beating heart of the country’s economy and the clerical government’s main source of foreign exchange — has led many to believe that these strikes could become a turning point in the history of workers’ protests and strikes against the ayatollahs’ regime, installed more than four decades ago.

The expansion of these strikes, which recently grew to include the militant workers of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Factory, can have a rapid and paralyzing effect in all parts of the country, bringing solidarity from other industrial branches in the face of the country’s deep economic crisis, caused not only by the U.S. imperialist blockade but also by the repressive regime, which represents the interests of Iran’s ruling elite.

Though the Iranian regime is known to crack down hard on protesters, workers are now entering the national scene more prominently and using methods like wildcat strikes. As a result, the use of conventional methods of repression is thrown into question. Furthermore, dissatisfied workers in the energy sector represent a threat of a much higher, given that hydrocarbons are the government’s main economic artery and that petroleum workers have played a historic role in the country’s politics.

At the same time, the rapid spread of workers’ strikes across Iran, coinciding with the election of a new government in Iran, has made it more likely that strikes will spread to other sectors of labor and trade unions. This further complicates the unstable situation in the Middle East, where a revolting sector of working youth has played an active and important role on the streets in recent years and has been joined by an increasingly dynamic labor movement, like the Iranian one, that is gaining experience in struggle and organization.

The current strike in many ways continues a monthlong wave of strike action by more than 10,000 workers that took place in the South Pars oil and gas fields last summer. The 2020 strike action forced employers to improve wages and living conditions, but one year later, as the social crisis in Iran has deepened and a new administration is preparing to take power, the strikes have expanded in both scope and scale.

Read the rest here.

Conservative Talking Heads Love Coal Miners—Until They Go on Strike

By Jacob Morrison - Jacobin and Labor Notes[1], May 17, 2021

A supposed defense of coal miners, their families, their way of life, and their culture has been front and center of the Republican agenda ever since the push for decarbonization began. It was a key part of the Right’s pushback against Obama and his “war on coal.” Hillary Clinton faced tremendous pushback for her awful statement on the 2016 campaign trail that she was going to “put a lot of coal miners out of business.”[1] In contrast, Trump said, “we’re going to put these coal miners back to work,” even bizarrely donning a hard hat in coal country at one point.

Many leftists have long argued that this faux-populist rhetoric was empty. Of course this advocacy ostensibly on behalf of coal miners was really only ever meant to help coal bosses.

Miners Walk Out

The last seven weeks confirms it: Republicans’ rhetoric is all a ruse. Why? Because since April 1, eleven hundred coal miners at Warrior Met coal mine have been on strike — first over unfair labor practices, then for a fair contract.

These miners have sacrificed for the company to bring it into solvency following a bankruptcy in 2015, when they accepted a contract with major concessions including a $6/hour pay cut, frequent seven-day workweeks, a loss of their guaranteed paid lunch break, and overtime compensation. They did their part, and now the company is solvent. In fact, two of the last five years saw record-breaking coal production, and the company’s CEO now has a record-breaking annual compensation of $4 million. But Warrior Met Coal did not hold up their end of the bargain.

First, they negotiated in such bad faith without any concrete proposals that workers were forced to go on an unfair labor practices strike. This forced the company to the table, but with an offer that workers found insulting, including up to $1.50/hour raise over five years.

The workers rejected this offer overwhelmingly, with an overwhelming majority of the miners voting against its ratification and opting to continue the strike.

To add insult to injury, while they were on strike, the company filed a complaint against the workers in an attempt to suppress their speech by limiting their ability to picket. The courts, as they have so often throughout American labor history, gladly cooperated, first limiting picket lines to six people per entrance, and then allowing the union a whole ten people per entrance. All the while, the miners have faced intimidation from the cops, who falsely tell them they are not allowed to walk on their picket lines. Meanwhile, the company buses in scabs to undercut them.

Fossil Fuel Companies Took Billions in U.S. Coronavirus Relief Funds but Still Cut Nearly 60,000 Jobs

By Nicholas Kusnetz - Inside Climate News, April 2, 2021

When Congress looked to prop up a tanking economy and stanch its hemorrhaging of employment as the pandemic spread last year, the oil industry was among those that sought relief. Now, a new analysis shows that dozens of fossil fuel companies received billions of dollars in tax benefits in the coronavirus relief package, but slashed tens of thousands of jobs anyway.

While Congress ended up sending billions in direct loans to small and large businesses, a significant portion of CARES Act benefits came in the form of changes to the tax code. At least 77 fossil fuel companies took advantage of those to claim a total of $8.2 billion in benefits last year, even as they cut nearly 60,000 jobs, according to an analysis published Friday by BailoutWatch, a nonprofit supported by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Chris Kuveke, a BailoutWatch analyst, said the data shows that the aid to the industry failed to deliver the benefits that Congress had intended.

“These companies did not use that money they received through the CARES Act to maintain payroll,” he said.

As oil prices collapsed last year, some energy companies began lobbying Congress and the federal government for various forms of relief. Occidental Petroleum, for example, enlisted its employees to send letters to members of Congress to ask that they “provide liquidity” to the energy industry, according to Bloomberg News.

Among the various forms of stimulus included in the final relief package were changes to the tax code that proved beneficial to the oil industry.

For example, companies for years were allowed to “carry back” their losses in one year to offset profits from previous years to get a retroactive tax refund. That allowance helped companies with volatile earnings, but it was eliminated by the 2017 tax cuts signed into law by President Donald Trump. The change was one of the few provisions of the tax overhaul that modestly increased the tax burden for corporations, even as the bill overall drastically reduced corporate taxes, said Thornton Matheson, a senior fellow at Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

The CARES Act eliminated that change, and even expanded on the original provision, allowing companies to carry any losses incurred from 2018-2020 back five years, instead of the two years allowed before the 2017 tax bill. Matheson said the oil and gas industry was among a few likely to benefit most from that part of the CARES Act, because its earnings can swing wildly with commodity prices.

Thus the change allowed companies to stretch losses from 2018 back to 2013, when oil prices were above $100 a barrel and profits for some of them were sky high (prices fell sharply in late 2014, and have not fully recovered).

Marathon Petroleum, a major refiner, benefited the most, the analysis found, claiming $2.1 billion in tax benefits, according to the BailoutWatch analysis. The company cut nearly 2,000 jobs last year, not counting those in its retail business.

Marathon disputed the figure, saying that less than 30 percent of its $2.1 billion tax benefit was due to the CARES Act provisions. However, its annual securities filing said that based on the carryback “as provided by the CARES Act, we recorded an income tax receivable of $2.1 billion” to reflect the company’s estimate of the refund it expected to receive in its 2020 tax return.

Marathon spokesman Jamal T. Kheiry said some of the layoffs were associated with the idling of refineries, and added that the company was generous with employees who lost their jobs. “To help affected employees transition, we provided severance, bonus payments, extended healthcare benefits at employee rates, job placement assistance, counseling and other provisions,” he said.

NOV, a drilling company, cut nearly 8,000 workers, more than 20 percent of its employees, despite receiving a $591 million tax benefit. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Occidental collected $195 million and cut 2,600 jobs.

Eric P. Moses, a spokesman for Occidental, said the job cuts were associated with its 2019 acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum “and completed prior to the COVID pandemic and Congress’ passage of the CARES Act.”

Oil Trains: Are Profits Worth Our Risk?

As coal dies, the US has no plan to help the communities left behind

By Emily Pontecorvo - Grist, March 3, 2021

Here are two tales of the energy transition unfolding in coal country, USA.

In late 2019, Pacificorp, an electric utility that operates in six Western states, told Wyoming regulators it wanted to shut down several of its coal-fired power plants early and replace them with wind and solar power and battery storage. It said this plan would save customers hundreds of millions of dollars on their electric bills and promised to work with local leaders on transition plans for workers and communities affected by the closures.

Wyoming, a state whose economy relies significantly on coal mining and coal power, went on the defensive. State lawmakers had already passed a law requiring coal plant owners to search for a buyer before being allowed to close a plant. Now, with support from the governor, regulators ordered an unprecedented investigation to scrutinize Pacificorp’s analysis and conclusions. Ultimately they determined the plan was deficient — that the company had not adequately considered allowing the coal plants to stay open or installing technology to capture the plants’ carbon emissions.

The Rural Climate Dialogues: A Community-Driven Roadmap for Climate Action in Rural Minnesota

By Tara Ritter - Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, November 17, 2020

Rural America has a central role to play in meeting the climate crisis and rural residents have innovative ideas about how to do it. Rural America encompasses 97% of the land area in the United States and is home to nearly all the nation’s energy production, including wind and solar farms, oil drilling and power plants. The nation’s vast agricultural and forested land, which are essential natural resources in responding to climate change, are managed by the 19% of the population that lives in rural America. It seems obvious that rural Americans should be deeply involved in developing climate policy; yet, rural perspectives and ideas are too often not part of the discussion.

There are real challenges in engaging rural communities on climate policy, including longstanding political obstacles that run deeper than views on climate change. The divide between rural and urban is not just geographic, but also cultural and political, and here in Minnesota the gap is widening. Urban and rural Minnesotans have grown apart in many ways — age, income, educational attainment, race and culture. Ignoring these differences, or trying to ram through them, has thus far delayed action on climate change.

Climate change offers an opportunity to engage differently with rural communities in a way that focuses on solutions rather than assigning blame. Instead of trying to “sell” climate policy to rural communities, we must engage organizations and leaders rooted in rural areas in the development stage to identify solutions that work for them. As important, we need community-level engagement tools designed to overcome our current toxic political environment and map out rural-appropriate responses to climate change that feed up into policy and concrete action.

Since 2014, IATP, in partnership with the Jefferson Center, has hosted Rural Climate Dialogues (RCDs) in five Minnesota counties. This method of civic engagement emphasizes listening and empathy building; focuses on each community’s distinct hopes, challenges and sense of place; and ultimately creates locally driven climate action plans. This report will discuss the context in which we have done this work, provide an overview of each community’s recommendations and actions, and share what we have learned.

Read the text (PDF).

No shortcuts to an ecosocialist future

By Fred Fuentes - Green Left, October 16, 2020

Faced with a global triple crisis ‒ health, economic and climate ‒ it is no wonder most people believe the world is heading in the wrong direction. But who people blame for this situation and their responses have varied.

Socialists believe the capitalist system is at the heart of these crises and that the solution lies in replacing it with a democratic socialist society.

The challenge we face

Under capitalism, corporations will always seek to defend their narrow interests. They do so by, among other things, funding political parties, opposition movements, media outlets and institutions that serve their agenda.

But, while the capitalist class is united in its defence of capitalism ‒ even at the cost of the Earth ‒ different sections of the capitalist class have varying interests and views on how to best protect them.

United States Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would appear to be the candidate par excellence for corporations. Yet more billionaires are backing his opponent, Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Unsurprisingly, CEOs in the energy/natural resource sector are overwhelmingly behind Trump’s climate denialism.

But when it comes to finance (Wall Street), technology (Silicon Valley) and the media, Biden is the preferred candidate. Many of these same sectors have also been involved in promoting climate institutes, campaign groups and even protests, such as last year's Climate Strike.

This does not make these capitalists allies in the fight against climate change, racism and sexism. They just sense that taking such a stance is the best way to protect, and in some cases even raise, their profit margins.

Why does this matter then? Because to achieve our aims, we need to know exactly who we are up against.

Why Unions Are the Key to Passing a Green New Deal

By Dharna Noor - Gizomodo, September 25, 2020

There’s a persistent conservative myth that the clean energy transition must come at the expense of employment. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. The Congressional resolution on a Green New Deal, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey last February, includes a proposal guarantee employment to all those who want it. And increasingly, climate activists are focusing on the potential to create millions of good jobs in clean energy.

These pro-worker proposals—and the knowledge that it will take an economy-wide effort to kick fossil fuels and the curb to avert climate catastrophe—have won the platform support from swaths of the labor movement. Yet some powerful unions still oppose the sweeping proposal. The president of the AFL-CIO—the largest federation of unions in the U.S.—criticized the Green New Deal resolution, and heads of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the United Mine Workers of America, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have outright opposed it. That poses a political roadblock to achieving the necessary transformation of the U.S. economy. 

“The Green New Deal movement needs broader support from the labor movement to be successful,” Joe Uehlein, founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability and former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, said. “As long as labor isn’t a central player in this movement, they will they have the power to block pretty much anything. on Capitol Hill. They contribute in electoral campaigns. They’re a very powerful force.”

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