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Steelworkers

Big Oil’s Bi-Partisan Helpers: a Refiner’s Fire 5 Years Later

By Steve Early - Counterpunch, August 4, 2017

Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”

When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.

August 6th is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.

Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and fifteen thousand refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints, While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.

Four Months into Strike, Idaho Miners Stand Strong

By Brian Skiffington - Labor Notes, July 28, 2017

A beloved 53-year old miner named Larry Marek was killed on the job at the Lucky Friday mine in Mullan, Idaho just a few years back. Steelworkers Local 5114 had been warning the company about the stability of a certain area called a stope. Management had Marek mine out the last piece of earth supporting the cavern for the ore it contained and the roof collapsed.

The consensus is that company greed for profit killed Larry Marek when the ceiling caved in. Now his picture stands on the 24-hour picket line in front of the mine, as 250 miners enter their fifth month on strike.

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

Rick Norman, known as “Redman,” is one of the striking silver miners in the Silver Valley, a stretch of small but proud mining towns along I-90 in the northern Idaho panhandle. He says the terms that Hecla Mining imposed on workers in March radically changes almost every aspect of their daily lives. The company wants to:

  • Eliminate the bid system, a longstanding union procedure in which senior union members put together crews and bid on various jobs in the mine
  • Reduce call-back protections in the event of a mine closure or layoff from three years to three months
  • Pass large insurance costs on to workers
  • Eliminate workers’ ability to bank vacation time, which many use to transition into retirement early

“The bid system is everything,” Redman tells me. “It’s about control.” Workers speculate that the company wants to control job assignments so that they can make old-timers do the backbreaking labor they did 30 years prior, pressuring them to quit and leave the industry. At stake are years of experience, trust, safety, and opportunities for younger workers to learn the job from senior members.

Trust is critical six thousand feet beneath the earth's surface, in confined spaces with rock temperatures near 110 degrees and with unpredictable movements of the earth. “It’s about the right to work with guys that have the training and know the safety,” Redman says.

Idaho is a right-to-work state, so a key component of organizing new workers into the union is convincing them that they have to join if a senior member is going to pick them through the bid system. Ninety-six percent of the bargaining unit is in the union.

The hard-rock mining industry is fickle. Downturns in markets, catastrophes, environmental protections, and many other factors can open and close mines at the drop of a dime. A three-year call-back is critical for any sort of stability for a mining family.

Redman and his fellow strikers paint a picture of a company that used to care about workers and their community. Upper management knew everyone by name and would sit down with you if you were having a problem. “Their office was in Wallace [a 10-minute drive from the mine] and any miner could walk right in and shake their hand,” Redman says. “Sure, there were problems, but we knew we needed each other.”

Several strikers said Hecla used to give workers interest-free home loans. Now, miners say the company seems willing to sacrifice its workforce, the community, and anyone that gets in its way to appease shareholders and generate profit. This strike, the first since 1981, only scratches the surface of the disbelief and frustration this union feels.

Local 5114 has been without a contract since March 2016. When Hecla began implementing its “last, best, and final” offer in March 2017, the union declared an unfair labor practice strike.

Miners contend that management never intended to negotiate at all, and was just buying time while outside contractors finished a critical project. Some speculate that the company intended to force a strike all along. Under labor law, the company cannot permanently replace unfair labor practice strikers. Hecla has not attempted to bring in strikebreakers, though some maintenance and contracting work has continued in the mine and the mill. Rumors abound that management could begin blasting at a slow pace.

How We're Surviving Right to Work: Oil Refinery Workers Get People in Motion

By Alexandra Bradbury - Labor Notes, May 16, 2017

The key is collective action, says Steelworkers Local 675 Secretary-Treasurer Dave Campbell. His union represents 4,000 workers in California and Nevada, many of them at oil refineries where workers get a window of opportunity to drop their membership each time the contract comes up for renegotiation. In each refinery of 300-600 workers, the union maintains around 90 percent membership.

That's because members have the habit of acting for themselves as a union on the shop floor. Union leaders encourage members to bolster a grievance with workplace action. For instance, a supervisor had forbidden people to wear baseball caps, sunglasses, or Hawaiian shirts in the control room. Workers collected signatures on a petition and presented it to the other supervisor, who crumpled it up and threw it away.

“We organized all four crews to show up for work with Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and ball caps,” Campbell says, “and the union bought the roast pig for a Hawaiian luau lunch. When the superintendent saw all the workers united, he of course asked what the hell was going on—and the supervisor who had caused all this was reassigned.”

Besides being fun and effective, these activities give workers the chance to learn by doing. “In essence they see what the union really is,” Campbell says. “The union is them, and it’s their concerted, collective activity on the shop floor which gives the union power.”

Sen. Jim Smith, State Chair of ALEC, Pens Letter to PSC Supporting TransCanada’s Foreign Steel-Made, Foreign Oil-Carrying Keystone XL Export Pipeline

By Jane Kleeb - Bold Alliance, March 8, 2017

Bold Alliance president Jane Kleeb issued this response to a letter sent by Nebraska State Sen. Jim Smith, also the state chair of corporation-friendly bill mill ALEC, and other Senators to the Public Service Commission voicing support of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tarsands export pipeline, which is abusing eminent domain for private gain, and threatening our land, water and climate:

“Keystone XL is a foreign-owned pipeline, using foreign, non-union steel, transporting foreign oil, headed to the foreign export market,” said Bold Alliance president Jane Kleeb. “We stand with the United Steelworkers union demanding U.S. steel, landowners defending their property rights from eminent domain, and our Native allies as we all take action to protect our water.”

Foreign, Non-Union Steel Destined for KXL

President Trump has betrayed the promise of his Presidential Memorandum, and numerous statements he has made publicly saying that only U.S.-made steel would be used on Keystone XL.

Despite TransCanada’s contention that “75% of the steel [for Keystone XL] is coming from North American sources,” this statement grossly misrepresents the sourcing of steel already purchased by the company for the pipeline.

It’s true that some of the pipe intended for Keystone XL was manufactured in North America — Canada to be exact (which obviously does not meet Trump’s promise to “buy American” or “American-made” steel). But the Russian company with facilities in Regina, Canada that TransCanada contracted with for 40% of the pipe, Evraz, is co-owned by Russian steel oligarch Roman Abramovich, a close ally and mentor of Vladimir Putin — and a Trump family friend.

Trump Lies About Keystone XL, Turns His Back on Unions and Fails at Negotiating “Best Deal” for America With U.S. Steel for Pipelines

By Mark Hefflinger and Jane Kleeb - Bold Alliance, March 3, 2017

President Trump on Thursday backtracked on his Presidential Memorandum and countless claims that all pipelines in the U.S. would now be made with American-made steel — including Keystone XL — and said that TransCanada could use non-American steel for the foreign tarsands export pipeline.

“The Keystone XL pipeline is currently in the process of being constructed, so it does not count as a new, retrofitted, repaired, or expanded pipeline,” a White House spokeswoman told Politico on Thursday.

The Keystone XL pipeline does not have a Presidential permit, nor a permit from the State of Nebraska. Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has not started, which in turn means the White House lied to the press yesterday.

“Trump is a liar and a fraud,” said Bold Alliance president Jane Kleeb. “Trump just got bullied by a foreign corporation, using foreign steel, carrying foreign oil, headed to the foreign export market all while opening a reckless door for foreign interests to use eminent domain for private gain against American landowners.”

On. Jan. 24, President Trump held an event to publicly sign a trio of Presidential Memorandums — one that said that “to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law” companies must use U.S. steel on all new pipelines, “as well as retrofitted, repaired, or expanded pipelines.” The memo goes on to further stipulate that this means the steel must be in the U.S. “from the initial melting stage through the application of coatings,” and rules out “steel or iron material or products manufactured abroad from semi-finished steel or iron from the United States” as qualifying as American-made.

The other two memos President Trump signed during the same ceremony on Jan. 24 aimed to fast-track the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Since Jan. 24, Trump has repeatedly mentioned the “only U.S. steel” requirement in the same breath as his memos expediting completion of Keystone XL and Dakota Access.

Union co-operatives: what they are and why we need them

By Simon Taylor - New Internationalist, January 12, 2017

Trade unionist Jimmy Reid described alienation as ‘the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making’. This frustration is endemic in contemporary neoliberalised economies, and according to commentators, including George Monbiot, it contributes to the rise of populist backlashes and disempowerment.

Unions play a vital role in counter-balancing alienation and frustration, responding to organizations imposing alienating practices on their workers. However, neoliberal policies have contributed to a long-term decline of union membership and influence in the Anglosphere and elsewhere.

But workers and unions can counter alienation and other negative effects of neoliberal policies – such as outsourcing, precarity and union decline – in new and imaginative ways.

The United Steelworkers (USW) union in the US is one of many good examples, responding to decades of deindustrialisation and declining union membership. They are developing worker co-operatives that place unions at the heart of enterprises, a model known as union co-ops. They have modified the resilient Mondragon worker co-op model by replacing its social council in co-operatives with more than 50 workers with a Union Bargaining Committee. The committee represents the worker co-operators interests as workers, while other structures represent their interests as owners. Worker representation structures are important according to Mondragon and the USW because there is an inherent risk in worker co-ops that when enterprises achieve scale, workforce engagement in decision making is diluted.

The benefits of worker co-ops have been discussed widely elsewhere. They include empowering workers by involving them in the crucial decision-making processes affecting their working lives, overcoming the alienating factor of lack of control. Indeed, the USW believes that worker co-operators are unlikely to offshore or outsource their own jobs, to design precarity into their employment, or to make themselves redundant in response to business downturns – all tools that neoliberalism makes attractive options regardless of the consequences to workers and communities.

The USW also believes that the active involvement of unions in worker-coops will result in higher union membership within the enterprise, thereby contributing to trade union renewal efforts in some measure. After all, placing unions at the heart of the enterprise allows them to find potential members in a way that is impossible in other contexts.

In a recent study, I examined union co-ops in the US, and Britain’s experience of union involvement with worker co-ops. It sought to determine whether UK unions should be noting the example of their US counterparts, and considered whether lessons can be drawn that should be applied to Britain’s context (and elsewhere).

In the study, I found that the USW’s and other organizations’ efforts to establish union co-ops in the US are ongoing. They have considered the role unions can play in establishing and supporting enterprises to become sustainable, while forging an effective bargaining and representational role.

In Britain, I found that unions often struggle to carve out a role for themselves in worker co-ops, choosing not to engage with them and favouring their traditional role in conventional employment models. Despite sharing common historical roots addressing the iniquities of industrialisation, union and co-operative movements have often nonetheless been wary bedfellows.

The closest parallel to the union co-op model found in Britain was the relationship between Suma Wholefoods (a worker co-op wholefood wholesaler) and the Bakers Union (BFAWU). Suma is a long-established business, and operates a flat pay structure – meaning all its worker/owners are paid the same. They sought to recognise a union, and came to an agreement with the BWAFU, working collaboratively wherever they can, only moving to opposite sides of the table when a dispute or issue arises. I found that the arrangement is working well, suggesting that both the BFAWU and the USW have successfully defined a beneficial role for themselves in worker co-ops. The BFAWU cite Suma as a good employment model to others, and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other worker co-ops.

A sector that may be ripe for the union co-op model in Britain is adult social care, although it is noteworthy that the USW and others are developing union co-ops in the industrial sectors they organise in. Skills for Care, an organization working with employers to increase skill levels in the social care industry, report that the number of adult social care jobs in Britain in 2014 was estimated at 1.55 million, and since 2009 local authority jobs in the sector had shrunk by 50,000, while the private sector had grown by 225,000.

However, in my study I found that some unions seemed to be failing to target this growth area of employment in public services. Instead, they were choosing to adopt an ideological mantra that public services should be delivered by the public sector, or were oblivious to the opportunities presented by alternative models of work organisation.

Arguably their ideology or lack of interest flies in the face of the trajectory of the neoliberal assault on public services, and it abandons workers to largely non-unionised employers operating alienating work practises, and denying unions the oxygen of membership growth and innovative thought and action.

There are already examples in Italy, the US, Britain and elsewhere of how social care coops are successfully meeting rising social care demand in the private sector, often encouraging union membership and participation in the process.

Perhaps, it is time that the union movement in Britain and elsewhere took note of what the USW and others in the US are doing in respect of unionised worker co-ops. It’s worth considering how the union co-op model could be applied to their own context, how it may counter alienation amongst their members, and how it may contribute towards their renewal efforts.

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.

This Is What Insurgency Looks Like

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, May 22, 2016

In a small church in the Albany, NY’s low-income, predominantly African-American South End, forty people were gathered for a community meeting. They were organizing a protest against trains carrying potentially explosive oil – dubbed by the residents “bomb trains” — that were running through their neighborhood. City Counselor Vivian Kornegay told the group that many municipalities had opposed the bomb trains and other dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure, but had little power to protect their residents; it was up to a “people’s movement” to do so. “What we want is for all of us to be free, healthy, and safe – and for our planet to be a better place to live.”

Maeve McBride, an organizer for 350.org, explained that the protest was part of a global campaign of direct action and civil disobedience aiming to keep 80% of all fossil fuels in the ground. Pastor Mark Johnson of the St. John’s Church of God in Christ said, “I heard at a meeting last night that we have a constitutional right to clean water and clean air.” Maeve McBride explained that the action was part of a “new wave” that was drawing on a “new paradigm” – “using civil disobedience to protect the public trust,” which included water, air, and the climate itself.

Organizers had met with officials from the police and sheriff’s offices and reported, “they abhor the trains – and are very supportive of us.” Then the group received direct action training. They read out loud the “action agreement” pledging nonviolent behavior and mutual support. Then they lined up to march and while police officers (played by the trainers) ordered them to move away, they scrambled onto an imaginary railroad track. Later that evening the steering committee for Albany Break Free planned outreach to supporting organizations, phone banks, canvassing, leafleting, and details of the action.

The Albany organizers had learned about the “new paradigm” when 350.org North American co-organizers of Break Free From Fossil Fuels had decided to use the “public trust” principle to frame US Break Free actions and formed a Break Free Public Trust Work Group to spread the idea. Some on the The Break Free Albany steering committee had participated in the working group’s webinar on using the public trust doctrine, and they decided to integrate the Public Trust Proclamation into their “topline message” and to hand out the Break Free Public Trust Proclamation to all participants. (The Proclamation appears at the end of this article.]

A week before the action the Albany Break Free steering committee defined their basic message. Potentially explosive crude oil “bomb trains” roll through Albany and surrounding communities, polluting the air and contributing to the climate crisis. Primarily low-income communities of color are put at risk. The urgent need to address climate change means that fossil fuels have to be left in the ground and a transition made to a “twenty-first century renewable energy economy.” They called for an end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines, power plants, compressor stations, and storage tanks. And they called for a just transition away from fossil fuel energy with training and jobs for affected workers, so “no worker is left behind.”

Contested Futures: U.S. Labor after Keystone XL

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, May 12, 2016

Originally published in New Labor Forum. Download PDF

The extraordinary story of the political battle over the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline that began in the summer of 2011 came to an end when President Obama finally rejected the project on November 6, 2015. President Obama’s decision was met with anger and derision from many unions in the Building Trades—known in labor as simply the Trades—but was a cause for reserved celebration for the handful of unions that opposed the project.

Time to Kiss and Make Up?

Labor’s part in the fight over KXL was lazily portrayed in the mainstream media in “here we go again” jobs versus environment terms. But this was no ordinary squabble, and there are no plans for a “group hug” moment of reconciliation for the principal officers of a number of key unions now that the saga is seemingly over.

KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious union leadership-level dispute in the years ahead. Referring to the split in labor over KXL, the pro-pipeline president of Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) Terry O’Sullivan said in early 2013,

That divide is as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.[2]

Can future KXL-like fights be avoided? Yes, but it will require that certain unions rethink their relationship to coal, oil, and gas industry groups and take the lead in driving a different conversation about “extractionism,” energy, and climate change.

Can the Climate Movement Break Free From the 'Jobs vs. Environment' Debate?

By Kate Aronoff - Common Dreams, April 30, 2016

For two weeks this May, organizers across 12 countries will participate in Break Free 2016, an open-source invitation to encourage “more action to keep fossil fuels in the ground and an acceleration in the just transition to 100 percent renewable energy.” Many of the month’s events — pulled together by 350.org and a slew of groups around the world — are set to take place within ongoing campaigns to shut down energy infrastructure, targeting “some of the most iconic and dangerous fossil fuel projects all over the world” with civil disobedience.

The Break Free site’s opening page invites viewers to “join a global wave of resistance to keep coal, oil and natural gas in the ground.” And that’s where some unions have taken issue.

The United Steelworkers, or USW, this week released a response. “Short-sighted and narrow-focused activities like 350.org’s ‘Break Free’ actions,” they write, “make it much more challenging to work together to create and envision a clean energy economy.” Three of the locations targeted — in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Washington — are USW-represented refineries. The union argues that, despite record growth in renewables, the economy will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels for some time. “Shutting down a handful of refineries in the United States,” they say, “would lead to massive job loss in refinery communities, increased imports of refined oil products, and ultimately no impact on global carbon emissions.” Rather, refineries and their workers should be brought into the clean energy economy.

The statement ends arguing that, “We can’t choose between good jobs or a healthy environment. If we don’t have both, we’ll have neither.” In more familiar terms, Breaking Free — for the USW — sounds like a case of jobs versus the environment.

While similar releases are standard fare for other unions, the 30,000-member USW is one of the country’s most progressive — even when it comes to environmental issues.

“People assume that because we’re an industrial union that our leadership doesn’t care about the environment,” Roxanne Brown told me. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Brown is the assistant legislative director at USW, and emphasized the union’s long history of work on environmental issues. The USW hosted a conference in support of air pollutant regulations in the late 1960s, early on rejecting the kind of weaponized jobs versus environment rhetoric that has cropped up around the Keystone XL pipeline and other extraction fights.

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