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Steve Early

“Refinery Town” points the way forward to protect communities and defend rights

By Garrett Brown - The Pump Handle, January 16, 2017

Let’s just say there was a working class community – of various skin colors – which was dominated for a century by a giant corporation who ran the town with bought-and-paid-for politicians, and whose operations regularly poisoned the community, threatened the health and safety of its workforce, and periodically blew up, sending thousands to the hospital. How could they even begin to protect the health of their families and community, and exercise their democratic right to a local government that put the needs of the vast majority ahead of corporate profits?

The answer to that question can be found in a book that went on sale today: Refinery Town; Big Oil, Big Money, and the remaking of an American City by labor journalist Steve Early. The portrait of Richmond, California, a city of 110,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the decade-long political organizing and campaigns by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), contains many lessons that will be very useful to keep in mind as a new political regime takes power this week as well.

Richmond was a classic “company town” after Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) set up its oil refinery – then the third largest in the country – across the Bay from San Francisco in 1905. For several decades the oil company had a desk in City Hall to make it easy for the politicians its funding and support helped elect to be aware of Chevron’s opinion on city issues. Chevron’s oil tanker-sized political influence trailed in its wake conservative Black community leaders (Richmond was a majority African-American city and now is roughly one-third Black, one-third white and one-third Asian), as well as the unions representing firefighters and police, and the local building trades unions whose motto frequently has been “jobs at all costs.”

Starting at the dawn of the 21st century this began to change with the rise of RPA, initiated by political and labor movement veterans from back East who went on to make deep connections in Black, white and Asian neighborhoods in the city. Year-around activities, a lot of shoe leather, and patient, face-to-face campaigning resulted in electing and re-electing a Green Party mayor (Gayle McLaughlin), electing numerous City Councilors, defeating well-funded efforts to build a casino on coastal land, and hard-ball negotiations with Chevron for community benefits to accompany a major renovation of the 100-year-old refinery. In the November 2016 elections, the RPA succeeded in electing a majority in the seven-member City Council and passing the first rent-control law in California for more than two decades.

All of this was achieved over the opposition of Chevron – which outspent the RPA by as much as 20-to-1 in several election cycles in direct and indirect support of its favored candidates – and despite all the ups and downs of community organizing and the internal political/personality disputes that occur everywhere.

Challenging a Giant

By Mark Dudzic - Jacobin, January 5, 2017

One of the few bright spots in this year’s election was the victory of the Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates and RPA-endorsed rent control initiative in Richmond, California, a predominantly black and Latino, gritty (though rapidly gentrifying) industrial city of 110,000 in the East Bay.

The alliance, a coalition of community groups, unions, liberal democrats, Greens, environmentalists, and leftists of various stripes, had participated in the governance of Richmond for the previous twelve years despite formidable opposition from the Chevron Corporation, the city’s largest private employer, and the political establishment beholden to it. That the RPA triumphed once again in 2016 was a tribute to its staying power and capacity to mobilize a broad constituency around a working-class agenda.

Company Town

Richmond is a company town. The company in question, Chevron, is not only the city’s largest but also its dirtiest employer. Chevron practically founded the town in 1905 when it opened what was, at the time, the world’s third-largest oil refinery. Other industrial development followed, peaking in World War II with a giant Kaiser shipyard, Ford plant, and dozens of other industrial companies employing tens of thousands of workers. (Richmond is home to the Rosie the Riveter national historic park commemorating the role of women industrial workers during World War II.)

Those workers included many black migrants from the American South squeezed into substandard and segregated housing. The city rapidly deindustrialized after the war, leaving large swathes of abandoned factories and toxic residue. Chevron stayed.

There are few corporate entities more reprehensible than large oil corporations. The prototype, Standard Oil, was created by John D. Rockefeller in 1870 and by the 1880s controlled close to 90 percent of US oil refining and distribution. Broken up by trustbusters in 1911, it spawned dozens of new companies. Three of them (including Standard Oil of California, later Chevron) were part of the “seven sisters” which dominated the world political economy throughout the twentieth century. They have an unmatched record of environmental degradation, political subversion and corruption, and contempt for workers’ rights and government regulation.

Half of the members of my old union, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (now part of the Steelworkers), worked for these behemoths. The in-house history of the union was called Challenging the Giants because our union’s identity was forged in struggle with them. Their arrogant unilateralism was the secret behind OCAW’s surprising militancy and internal democracy. Big oil never accepted the post–World War II consensus that unions ought to be integrated as junior partners into a tripartite class-conflict management team.

Company unions persisted at Standard Oil properties into the 1990s, and all the big oil refineries were run as open shops, forcing the union to engage in continuous “close the ranks” internal organizing that, perversely, built rank-and-file power and kept union density above 90 percent at most refineries.

The industry extracted a huge toll on its workers. One refinery worker described his twelve-hour shift as “eleven-and-a-half hours of extreme boredom, thirty minutes of swimming in a pool of toxic shit, and thirty seconds of sheer terror.” Their daily exposure to “thirty minutes of toxic shit” condemns refinery workers to high rates of occupational cancers and other illnesses. The “thirty seconds of terror” has subjected them to over 500 fires and explosions in the nation’s 141 oil refineries since 1994.

The Chevron Way: Big Oil’s Vacation From East Bay Politics Won’t Last Long

By Steve Early - CounterPunch, November 22, 2016

In the two election cycles prior to 2016, the global energy giant Chevron spent more than $4 million on city council or mayoral races in Richmond, CA. Big Oil’s independent expenditures were so large two years ago that they drew widespread condemnation as a particularly egregious example of the unrestricted corporate spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.

In our Chevron refinery town of 110,000, rent control was on the ballot this year. That’s not an issue that Chevron cares anything about. So, as company spokesman Leah Casey explained to the Richmond Confidential last month, her employer “decided not to participate in the 2016 local Richmond election,” preferring to remain “focused on keeping the refinery running safely and partnering with the city and the community on our modernization project.” (As a nearby neighbor, I found Chevron’s new “focus” particularly reassuring.)

This fall, the California Apartment Association replaced the oil company as our biggest local spender. According to Kathleen Pender in the SF Chronicle, the CAA and its allies raised $2.5 million to defeat rent control in multiple Bay Area communities on Nov. 8. In Richmond, the CAA pumped nearly $200,000 into its losing effort here (three times more than rent control advocates raised). By a 65 to 35 percent margin, Richmond voters approved a new system of rent regulation, a rent rollback to July, 2015 levels, and the legal requirement that landlords have “just cause” for evicting tenants.

Once again, Richmond progressives were celebrating a singular local triumph over “big money in politics” on election night. The strongest pro-rent control candidates in the 2016 council race, both RPA members, finished first and second in a field of nine. In similar fashion two years ago, three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance running for re-election to the city council won an upset victory–despite Chevron’s record-breaking spending against them.

Among that year’s winners was a persistent nemesis of Big Oil, former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, the California Green who sought to increase Chevron’s local taxes and county property tax bill to raise more revenue for cash-starved city services.