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Porto Marghera Workerist Group

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.

Let Nature Play: A Possible Pathway of Total Liberation and Earth Restoration

By Dan Fischer - Green Theory & Praxis, April 2022

Many argue that we are running out of time, but perhaps the problem is time itself. Or rather, it is the alienated time that we spend working on the clock, obsessively looking at screens, letting consumption of commodities dominate our free time and even invade our dreams. And it is the perception we often have of the universe as a giant clock, an inert machine to be put to work. Too often, there is no sense that nature, ourselves included, has a right to relax, a right to be lazy, a right to play.

While Autonomist Marxists define capitalism as an “endless imposition of work” on human beings (van Meter, 2017), we could add that the system also imposes endless work on nonhuman animals and nature. Moving even beyond van Meter’s broad conception of the working class as inclusive of “students, housewives, slaves, peasants, the unemployed, welfare recipients and workers in the technical and service industries” in addition to the industrial proletariat, Jason Hribal (2012) describes exploited animals as working-class. He points to animals’ labor for humans’ food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, and medicine. Corroborating such a perspective, capitalists themselves label exploited ecosystems as “working landscapes” (Wuerthner, 2014), exploited farm animals as “labouring cattle” (Hribal, 2012), genetically modified crops as “living factories” (Fish, 2013), and extracted hydrocarbons as “energy slaves” (Fuller, 1940). As summarized by Indigenous Environmental Network director Tom Goldtooth (2015) the dominant worldview posits that “Mother Earth is a slave.” This endless work has been disastrous for the planet. Humans’ long hours of alienated labor contribute to deeply destructive economic growth (Hickel & Kallis, 2019; Knight et al., 2013). So does the exploited labor of animals, with livestock taking up some 76% of the world’s agricultural land (Poore & Nemecek, 2018). Working landscapes “suffer losses in biological diversity, soil health, and other ecological attributes” (Wuerthner, 2014). And even the cleanest “energy slaves,” wind and solar power, can require large amounts of resources and land in the context of a growing economy (War on Want & London Mining Network, 2019).

Green Unionism against Precarity

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, January 1, 2022

Editor's Note: all but one or two of the links in this article link to multiple articles, located on the IWW Environmental Union Caucus site, categorized by topic. Therefore, it is to the reader's interest to explore all of the articles brought forth by each link, at their convenience (and that body of information is ever evolving over time).

An edited version of this article appears in New Politics 72.

In a real sense, under capitalism, all workers are "precarious", meaning that they can be downsized, replaced, deskilled, outsourced, etc. It's simply a matter of degrees.

The ultimate peak in precarity is "gig work" (which has actually always existed; the names simply keep changing, but the concept is the same).

Unions represent a check against precarity, though this occurs on a graduated scale. The stronger the union, the less the workers' precarity.

Union strength manifests in various ways: it can result from a well organized, international, militant democratic union (ideal, but rare, with few real world examples, such as ILWU, and the IWW, of course), though more often than not it's a result of concentration of elite craft workers in skilled trades unions, which represents a strong guard against precarity, but only for workers in the union, in which case, solidarity is limited.

Other checks against precarity include high demand for skilled craft workers in rare supply, High demand for hard to replace workers (such as workers that required skilled credentials, such as teachers or transport workers), or tight labor markets (which exist in our semi-post COVID-19 world, due to a combination of factors spelled out in the Vox article).

This is nothing more than class struggle 101, as expertly phrased by Karl Marx, et. al.

There are new forms of precarity emerging due to climate catastrophe (brought on by capitalism). Workers find themselves facing new health and safety hazards and/or threats to their working environment.

The Workers' Committees of Porto Marghera and 'Workerist Environmentalism'

Luddism for the age of robotics

By Simon Pirani - The Ecologist, May 7, 2021

Climate breakdown is driven by industrial production, production by machines controlled by people. But can those very people demand a new, low carbon production?

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller in his latest book, Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job (Verso, 2021).

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry”.

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

Fully Decelerated Carbon-Neutral Luddism

By Dr James Muldoon - Verso Books, April 26, 2021

Gavin Mueller wants us to hit the brakes. Tech companies have amassed enormous financial and ideological power and are driving society towards a future of surveillance and algorithmic management. We are enthralled by a vision of technological progress that has blinded us to the reality that new technology in the workplace is often implemented to control workers, rather than to make our lives easier. In his new book, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job, Mueller revives the misunderstood legacy of the Luddites in the service of a new decelerationist politics, one which calls bullshit on the promises of automation. Inspired by the history of workers’ struggles against scientific management and factory discipline, the book offers a vision of how we could develop a militant opposition to new technological interventions in the workplace that threaten workers’ autonomy.

The book is part of a growing movement on the Left that is critical of the idea that the ideas and practices of Silicon Valley could simply be adopted for progressive ends. Read alongside Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work and Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work, we can see the tide turning on a techno-optimist tendency which sees the glimmers of a communist future in the “sharing” economy and Amazon’s capacity for central planning. Mueller “wants to make Marxists into Luddites” and has this segment of the pro-tech Left squarely in his sights.

Before we invent the future, Mueller calls on us to rethink the past. Marxists, he claims, “have not been critical of technology, even when that technology is deployed in the workplace in ways that seem detrimental for workers.” Technology is too often seen by the Left as a neutral force that could be reclaimed and used for emancipatory purposes. For Mueller, many Marxists – from Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin and the Bolsheviks – fall prey to an economic determinism and fatalism that views the development of capitalist production and organisation as leading inevitably to a socialist society. This view of technology carries on into the twentieth-century’s organised labour movements, and from there to contemporary post-work theorists. In light of these failings, the book turns to previous workers’ struggles and “heretical strains of Marxism” for a profound reconceptualistion of the role of technology in a post-capitalist future.

Against Noxiousness (1971): The Political Committee of the Porto Marghera Workers

By Lorenzo Feltrin - Viewpoint Magazine, April 1, 2021

The paper “Against Noxiousness,” signed by the Political Committee of the Porto Marghera Workers, was presented 50 years ago, on February 28, 1971, at the Veneto Workers’ Congress in Mestre (Municipality of Venice, Italy). The Political Committee was an alliance between the local branches of two radical-left extra-parliamentary groups: Potere Operaio and il Manifesto. The paper, however, is best understood as part of the theory and praxis on noxiousness carried out by the Porto Marghera workerist group.

The Porto Marghera workerist group originated in the early 1960s through an encounter between intellectuals and students – mostly based in Padua and Venice – and militant workers disaffected with the line of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its associated union, the Italian General Confederation of labor (CGIL).1 While the industrial area of Porto Marghera2 was an important setting for the early activism of theorists such as Antonio Negri, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Massimo Cacciari, the theories produced by the workers themselves have been largely forgotten. Yet this experience was remarkable because it involved workers employed by polluting industries denouncing in both words and deeds the environmental degradation caused by their companies from as early as 1968, when the workerists had a key influence in the local factories.

The Italian word nocività refers to the property of causing harm. Through its use by the labor movement, it came to encompass damage to both human and non-human life; hence it can be translated neither as “harm to (human) health” nor as “(non-human) environmental degradation.” It is rendered here literally as “noxiousness.” Struggles against noxiousness at Porto Marghera contradict the widespread belief that what is today known as working-class environmentalism did not have much significance in the labor unrest of Italy’s Long 1968.

The Porto Marghera group’s core was made up of blue-collar workers, although it also featured a significant presence of technicians and clerks, as well as activists external to the factories. Its stronghold was the major integrated petrochemical complex known as Petrolchimico, which employed some of its main leaders, including Franco Bellotto, Armando Penzo, and Italo Sbrogiò. The group’s theorizing around noxiousness was spearheaded by the Petrolchimico technician Augusto Finzi. Born in 1941 from a well-off Jewish family based in insular Venice, Finzi spent part of his early childhood in a refugee camp in Switzerland to escape the Shoah, in which the German chemical industry – the most advanced of the time – had played a key and dreadful role. 

The group’s original contribution was based on the thesis of the inherent noxiousness of capitalist work and an antagonistic-transformative approach to capitalist technology. This led to the proposal of a counterpower able to determine “what, how, and how much to produce”3 on the basis of common needs, pointing to the utopian prospect of struggling for a different, anti-capitalist technology that would be compatible with the sustainable reproduction of life on the planet.

The group linked noxiousness to the workerist “strategy of refusal.” In this perspective, capitalist work is the production of value and thus the reproduction of a society of exploitation. Therefore, class struggle is not an affirmation of work as a positive value, but its negation. As Mario Tronti put it: “a working-class struggle against work, struggle of the worker against himself [sic] as worker, labor-power’s refusal to become labor.”4 The combination of the refusal of work with the dire health and safety conditions they experienced led the Porto Marghera group to the core idea that capitalist work is inherently noxious.

The work-technology nexus and working-class environmentalism: Workerism versus capitalist noxiousness in Italy’s Long 1968

By Lorenzo Feltrin and Devi Sacchetto - Theory and Society, March 5, 2021

This article traces the trajectory of theory and praxis around nocività or noxiousness – i.e., health damage and environmental degradation – drawn by the workerist group rooted in the petrochemical complex of Porto Marghera, Venice. While Porto Maghera was an important setting for the early activism of influential theorists such as the post-workerist Antonio Negri and the autonomist feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa, the theories produced by the workers themselves have been largely forgotten. Yet, this experience was remarkable because it involved workers employed by polluting industries denouncing in words and actions the environmental degradation caused by their companies from as early as 1968, when the workerists had a determining influence in the local factories.

The Porto Marghera struggles against noxiousness contradict the widespread belief that what is today known as working-class environmentalism did not have much significance in the labour unrest of Italy’s Long 1968. The Porto Marghera group’s original contribution was based on the thesis of the inherent noxiousness of capitalist work and an antagonistic-transformative approach to capitalist technology. This led to the proposal of a counterpower able to determine “what, how, and how much to produce” on the basis of common needs encompassing the environment, pointing to the utopian prospect of struggling for a different, anti-capitalist technology, compatible with the sustainable reproduction of life on the planet.

Read the text (Link).

Porto Marghera: The Last Firebrands

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