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Company Town

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.