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Richmond

“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.

News: Air District Commits to Studying Refinery Pollution Caps

By Shoshana Wechsler - Sunflower Alliance, June 18, 2016

The community-worker coalition that’s been fighting for years to limit pollution from Bay Area refineries won a significant victory June 15. The Air District board told the staff to evaluate our proposal for immediate, numerical caps on refinery emissions, along with three other proposals. This move came despite strong opposition from Air District staff, who argued that numerical caps on greenhouse gases are pointless and that numerical limits on all forms of pollution are legally questionable.

The next challenge for the coalition will be getting the Air District to move fast enough to prevent the refineries from bringing in a major influx of extra-polluting crude oil from Canadian tar sands.

In the June 15 board meeting of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, staff presented four proposals for controlling refinery emissions:

  • Analyze each refinery’s total energy efficiency as a way of reducing greenhouse gases
  • Continue the current program of making rules for reducing greenhouse gas and toxic emissions by separately analyzing each process in the refinery.
  • Place an immediate overall cap on greenhouse gas and toxic emissions from each refinery
  • Develop a Bay-Area-wide program for reducing emissions of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas)

The staff recommended that the board authorize further analysis of three of these proposals. It recommended dropping the community-worker proposal, using the same arguments offered before: that emissions caps may not be legally defensible and could conflict with the state’s cap-and-trade process for greenhouse gas emissions.

After strong arguments from the community-worker coalition and allies on the board, however, the board directed the staff to prepare an official Environmental Impact Review of each of the proposals. In more than two years since the coalition has been advocating these caps, the staff has failed to produce a detailed analysis of this proposal, despite numerous board requests. So this clear board direction represents a major advance for the environmental, community, and labor groups.

Board members John Avalos of San Francisco, Rebecca Kaplan of Oakland, and John Gioia, the Contra Costa County supervisor whose district includes four oil refineries, joined the community-worker coalition in insisting on a full review of all four proposals.

It should be possible to produce the Environmental Impact Reviews, provide a period for the public to comment, and produce revised reviews before the BAAQMD’s next board meeting in September. But given the slow pace of work on refinery emissions rules in the past, the community-worker coalition intends to keep pushing for a September report, so it will be possible to adopt final rules before the end of the year.

There’s also the question of what topics the Environmental Impact Review will include. In the June 15 meeting, Board member Kaplan insisted that the EIR must include an estimate of the health impacts of the emissions increases that would occur if caps are not adopted.

Background

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) has been discussing methods for limiting refinery pollution for more than three years. More than two years ago the community-worker coalition submitted its proposal: Tell refineries they’re not allowed to increase the levels of pollution they emit, starting now.

In addition to limiting harm to health and the climate, this proposal is critical for stopping Bay Area refineries from bringing in large amounts of crude oil from Canadian tar sands. Because tar sands oil takes so much energy to process, and because it spews out such large amounts of pollution that’s harmful to health, a cap on refinery emissions would effectively prevent an increase in tar sands refining. Scientists have stated that to prevent runaway climate disaster, the tar sands oil has to stay in the ground.

Bay Area refineries are turning to tar sands crude because their traditional sources of crude oil – in California and Alaska – are drying up. Tar sands oil producers, for their part, are increasingly looking to the Bay Area as an outlet for their product, since the Keystone XL pipeline was defeated, and Canadian First Nations are strongly resisting the shipment of tar sands oil through their territories. And Bay Area refineries, already equipped to handle “heavy” crude oil, are closer to being ready to refine tar sands than most others.

The Western States Petroleum Association, representing the oil companies, has been fighting regulation every step of the way. Recently they’ve sent mailers opposing regulation to residents in the districts of selected BAAQMD board members. It is reported that they are hoping to get a California legislator to introduce a bill banning local caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

Press Conference: The True Cost of Chevron Is Too High

OSHAgate

By Steve Zeltser - The Daily Censored, February 16, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The epidemic of refinery explosions and derailments  leading to massive explosions seem to increase by the week. Behind this collapse of health and safety protection according to advocates is the failure to protect health and safety whistleblowers. The fear of workers to complain about serious health and safety problems is a key part of this failure. Now a Federal lawyer at OSHA Darrell Whitman has charged along with health and safety whistleblowers that the agency management and the DOL have not been enforcing the law to protect not only the whistleblowers but the health and safety of all Americans.

In an explosive document sent to Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez in May 2014, Federal OSHA attorney Darrell Whitman, charged that there is systemic corruption in the agency that is preventing the protection of health and safety whistleblowers. As a result of making these charges with extensive documentation, Whitman has himself become a target of workplace bullying and moves to terminate him from the agency. In fact according to Whipple his supervisor Joshua Paul who is also an attorney at the agency ordered him to falsify federal documents  which is a criminal felony. On February 21, 2015 the agency sent a mover to his house and took his documents and badge preventing him from doing his work.
Whitman has a lot of years under his belt. He has been working over 10 years for state and Federal agencies so he knows a bit about how the Federal government operates.

His latest job was as an investigator in the OSHA program that investigates health and safety complaints by workers in industries from oil, rail, trucking and other companies in OSHA region 9 which covers nearly 40 million workers in the West.
As one of the 6 OSHA staff in this unit, there have been only three that actually doing investigations. Whitman investigates whether OSHA complaints by workers are valid and then makes a determination of whether or not their complaints are serious enough to gain a merit status. Under Federal law this merit status provides full back pay and can provide punitive damages to workers who are terminated for making their health and safety complaints.

EcoUnionist News #26

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, February 1, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Crude by Rail:

Carbon Bubble:

Green Jobs and Just Transition:

Other News of Interest:

For more green news, please visit our news feeds section on ecology.iww.org; Twitter #IWWEUC

EcoUnionist News #25

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 26, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Crude by Rail:

Carbon Bubble:

Green Jobs and Just Transition:

Other News of Interest:

For more green news, please visit our news feeds section on ecology.iww.org; Twitter #IWWEUC

Steelworkers protest racism and lack of adequate safety at the Shell refinery in Martinez, California

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 25, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Inside sources tell us that rank and file members of United Steelworkers Union Local 5 in Martinez, California are none too happy with management of the local Shell refinery bosses.

Their main beef is that the company refuses to hire full time firefighters to staff the facility, and instead choose to rely on part timers. Given these refineries' tendency to--well--explode, especially in light of the fact that they're processing heavier and dirtier tar sands crude through increasingly corroded and poorly maintained pipes (due to maintenance budget restrictions in spite of the workers' warning against that), this isn't shocking. In fact, what's shocking is that more people don't know about this.

These same workers attended the recent (January 21, 2015) Martinez City Council meeting to complain about unaddressed instances of sexism and racial slurs (including a hangman's noose and graffiti of a Nazi swastika found at the facility) by the company.

The union conducted a brief informational picket in nearby Pacheco on January 22 to raise awareness about their grievances. Stay tuned for updates.

Reportedly, members of USW Local 5 will also join in a community rally in front of city hall (400 Civic Center on McDonald), in Richmond, California at 5 PM, Wednesday, January 28, 2015. At 6 PM, the US Chemical Safety Board will issue its final determination on the August 6, 2012 toxic fire and explosion at the Chevron Richmond Refinery.

Rail Workers and Environmentalists to Teach Each Other

By Ron Kaminkow - Labor Notes, January 21, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s. Several IWW branches have, however, endorsed this effort.

With public attention focused on the railroads in a way it hasn’t been for decades, the cross-craft solidarity group Railroad Workers United is seizing the opportunity to teach the general public “railroading 101”—and teach rail workers “environmental politics 101.”

Both those workshops, among others, will be offered at one-day conferences on “The Future of Railroads: Safety, Workers, Community, and Environment,” March 14 in Richmond, California, and March 21 in Olympia, Washington. (See below for details.)

“My excitement about the conference is having railroaders, who on a daily basis are moving these really dangerous, volatile, flammable materials, having a dialogue with communities who want it to be made safe,” says activist Gifford Hartman.

“To my knowledge it’s never been done,” says Seattle switchman-conductor Jen Wallis. “Rail labor hasn’t worked with environmentalists to the degree that steelworkers and longshoremen and Teamsters have. It’s all very new.”

RWU is partnering with the Backbone Campaign and other groups to organize both events. The idea is to bring together rank-and-filers, environmentalists, and the general public.

Just as important as learning each other’s issues, Wallis says, is that “we get to know each other… So we have people we can call on when we have an issue on the table, and they can do the same with us.”

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