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Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies?

By an anonymous ex-member of the IWW (with a response by Steve Ongerth) - ecology.iww.org, April 28, 2022

Editor's Note: Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases and demanded cuts in union staffing that focused on health and safety in the refinery. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). Meanwhile, USW Local 5 members have been picketing the refinery 24-7, and have been, at times, joined by members of the local BIPOC and/or environmental justice community. After IWW EUC cofounder and long-time Bay Area IWW General Membership Branch member, Steve Ongerth, brought a call for solidarity with the striking workers to the April branch meeeting, a disgruntled member (who has since resigned from the organization), sent the following letter to the branch (name deleted for privacy reasons).

Message from a Disgruntled (former) Member:

I’m sorry to say how disappointed I am in the IWW. I’m a relatively new wobbly and although I believe in standing in solidarity with fellow workers it seems at some point lines must be drawn.

As I’ve read through these last emails about the USW Local 5 and the call to action for us to stand with them as they strike, many questions come to mind. The first one is what if fellow climate activists, many of whom are wobblies were to implement a protest blockade to stall production of this refinery in defense of the environment? I wonder if those refinery workers with whom we are picketing would come outside and join our protest line? I also wonder if they would be interested in the invitation to join the 2022 Global Climate Strike that you forwarded to us? In both cases I assume it is reasonable to conclude they would not.

As wobblies, where do we draw the line? What if oil pipeline workers go to strike for hazard pay because a tribal nation, whose land the pipeline is planned to cross blocks safe access to thier jobsite in protest of the poisoning of thier waterways? Would the IWW Environmental Caucus also put a call out to picket with those Union workers? We draw the line when it comes to police unions who’s membership is hellbent on beating and imprisoning people protesting civil injustices. Why are we supporting refinery workers? This makes no sense. Iunderstand that just about every industry is to some degree tainted with These workers primary job is to process and prepare for market the product that’s catapulted us into the current global warming apocalyptic meltdown!

Green Unionism on the Chevron Richmond Refinery Workers Picket Line

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, April 15, 2022

Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). The strike has gotten a good deal of media coverage:

However, the capitalist (and progressive) media have mostly missed some important details.

First of all, the striking refinery workers and their elected union leaders continue to emphasize that their issues extend beyond narrow bread and butter issues, such as wages and benefits. A major concern that they continue to articulate is that Chevron continues to try and cut unionized safety jobs and refuses to hire sufficient workers to safely and adequately staff the facility. Workers have complained of 12-hour days and six-day workweeks. All of these deficiencies not only risk the health and safety of the workers, but the surrounding, mostly BIPOC communities as well. Worse still, they have adverse environmental effects, a problem that hasn't been lost on the striking workers. As stated by USW Local 5 representative, B.K White:

“If we had more people and could get a better pay rate, maybe our members wouldn’t feel obligated to come in and work as many as 70 hours a week to make ends meet. We don’t believe that is safe. (that and the use of replacement workers) is at the detriment of the city of Richmond and the environment.”

Even less noticed by the media has been the presence of environmental justice activists (including, but not limited to, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free California, Richmond Progressive Alliance, Sierra Club, Sunflower Alliance, Sunrise Movement, and 350), various socialist organizations (including DSA in particular), and members from the nearby front-line BIPOC communities, who have joined the pickets in solidarity with the workers, something the workers have also not hesitated to point out. Indeed, in spite of the fact that many environmental justice activists and community members are harshly critical of Chevron's role in turning the city of Richmond into a capital blight infested sacrifice zone, they recognize that the workers are not their enemies nor are the latter responsible for the damage done by the company. On the contrary, many recognize that the unionized workforce is one of the best mitigations against far worse capital blight (it bears mentioning that there has also been a good deal of support and picket line presence from rank and file workers and union officials from many other unions, including the AFSCME, IBEW, IWW, ILWU, SEIU, UFCW, and the Contra Costa County Central Labor Council).

Such seemingly unlikely bonds of solidarity, though delicate and, at times, fragile didn't arise out of thin air, but, in fact, have resulted from years of painstaking grassroots organizing.

Hundreds of Chevron Workers Begin Strike as Company Refuses Further Bargaining

By Sharon Zhang - Truthout, March 21, 2022

On Monday, hundreds of Chevron workers in the San Francisco Bay Area went on strike after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage raises.

The contract, covering over 500 workers, was struck down by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5 members on Sunday. Workers were forced to go on strike after the company said that it had already offered its “last, best and final” contract, according to the union.

“It’s disappointing that Chevron would walk away from the table instead of bargaining in good faith with its dedicated work force,” Mike Smith, USW’s National Oil Bargaining Program chair, said in a statement. “USW members continued to report for work throughout the pandemic so our nation could meet its energy needs. They deserve a fair contract that reflects their sacrifice.”

The company has brought in workers to replace the union members, which it has been training for a year. The latest contract expired in February and workers have been operating under a rolling daily extension, according to the union.

The refinery workers say that one of the main reasons for the strike is insufficient wage raises. USW, which currently represents about 30,000 oil workers in negotiations with oil and chemical employers, reached a national agreement with refiners in February to raise wages by 12 percent over four years.

Local 5 had asked for an additional pay bump of 5 percent in order to account for higher costs of living in the San Francisco area, where it’s estimated that individuals must make at least $80,000 a year just to survive.

Richmond Progressive Alliance Listening Project, Episode 9: We Deserve Nothing Less

Richmond Progressive Alliance Listening Project, Episode 8: Union Proud

Richmond Progressive Alliance Listening Project, Episode 7: Buying Us Out

Richmond Progressive Alliance Listening Project, Episode 5: Asthma Club

Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: A Just Transition in the Oil & Gas Drilling and Refining Sectors

Let's Own Chevron: Can the Just Transition of the Fossil Fuel Industry Start Here?

By Ted Franklin - System Change not Climate Change, December 2020

The Bay Area is home to one of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world. In October 2020 Chevron overtook ExxonMobil to become the largest U.S. oil company as measured by market cap. On October 7, the total value of shareholders’ stock in Chevron reached $142 billion, surpassing Exxon’s $141.6 billion.

Headquartered in Dublin and operating Northern California’s largest refinery in Richmond, Chevron has already found itself in the crosshairs of Bay Area activists for its routine pollution of working-class neighborhoods and its contributions to climate change. The Richmond Progressive Alliance’s radical struggle against Chevron’s domination of Richmond’s city government has been a central story in Bay Area left environmentalism in recent decades..

Much bigger contests over the power of Chevron and its ilk lie directly ahead. Increasingly, it has become clear that a direct government takeover of our fossil fuel industries is a necessary step for at least three reasons:

  • 1. Reductions in oil, coal, and gas production must begin immediately to avoid catastrophic degradation of the planet. Chevron and every other fossil fuel company must begin the process of downsizing at a rapid pace. As long as the fossil fuel companies are being run to maximize profits, any downsizing will be accidental and haphazard. Management which puts people and planet first must take over to ensure that the necessary reductions take place.
  • 2. Public ownership is the only way to break the back of the fossil fuel industries’ death grip over climate policy. The fossil fuel capitalists will not go quietly away. They have enormous sunk costs in their existing infrastructure. They intend to exert enormous political power to resist any reduction in their profits and any attempt to make them “keep it in the ground.”
  • 3. A just transition for workers and communities requires social control of the rapidly evolving energy commons. Even if the carbon tax championed by Joe Biden’s Treasury pick, Janet Yellen,1 could achieve sufficient reductions in carbon emissions to avert climate disaster, it would do nothing to ensure that reductions in carbon emissions are achieved without misery to workers and communities.

What is to be done?

Read the text (PDF).

Decommissioning California Refineries and Beyond Workshop

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