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Jobs and equitable transition: Bridging the chasm between rhetoric and action

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 26, 2021

There was a time when the sight of rows of office workers hammering away at their Friden adding machines would have sent me into paroxysms of delight because I, the Victor Comptometer salesman, had a new and better “programmable calculator” that could kick the Friden’s ass.

I was a young 1970s college graduate entering the workforce at the tail end of the era of mechanical business automation. Typewriters, adding machines, and mechanical cash registers were still the workhorses of stores and offices.

Behind all that machinery were companies – Burroughs, Monroe, Friden, Victor – whose names were as familiar then as Cisco, Oracle, and SAP are today. And those companies supported factories, sales offices, and repair facilities that provided living wage jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Then, within a little more than a decade, it was all gone. A year after I fizzled as a Victor salesman, I was playing at home with my new Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer and five years later, instead of an adding machine and typewriter on my desk at work, there sat an Apple II desktop computer, precursor to the Mac.

Gone too were those hundreds of thousands of jobs plunging not only workers and families, but entire communities, into financial crisis. One could argue that Dayton, Ohio, once home to National Cash Register and the business forms giant, Standard Register, never recovered.

The knock-out blow suffered by the office automation industry was as ferocious and sudden as the one that hit the American steel industry a few years earlier, the textile industry a few decades before that, and also as the one that possibly faces workers in the fossil fuel economy today.

So how did we as a society help displaced workers and communities manage the economic consequences of the transition from the mechanical workplace to a digital one? We didn’t. Thanks to the New Deal, we had unemployment insurance and Medicare and Medicaid were brand spanking new. But that was about it – a little help for individuals and families and none whatsoever for communities.

Suds and Socialism Forum: Workers and the Environment

72% of surveyed oil and gas workers in Canada want career transition, with many willing to accept wage reduction

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, April 12, 2021

A survey of over 2,000 respondents from across Canada who had previously worked in the oil and gas industry found that 72% indicated that their career priority was to make a career transition. Of that 72%, “35% indicated their desired employment situation was in a different role or industry; 14% were seeking a different work arrangement such as self-employment; and 12% planned to seek employment after additional training.” The survey results are summarized in two blogs on March 30, Untapped Talent: Opportunity to Transition, and Untapped Talent, Transitioning Opportunity , from Canada’s oil and gas labour market organization, PetroLMI. The survey was conducted from October 2019 to December 2020.

While a resistance to lower wages is frequently cited as a barrier to Just Transition, the PetroLMI survey showed that: “the wage expectations of respondents were not out of line given their education, experience and skills. When asked about their salary expectations, 61% indicated a salary of less than $100,000, and 28% were willing to take a reduction in their salary for stable employment. In Alberta more than 35% of respondents said they were willing to take a salary reduction.” 42% of respondents were over the age of 55; 77% had over 15 years of experience; 86% had post-secondary education – in Alberta, most held a university, while in the rest of Canada, trade certification was most cited.

From the industry point of view: “While layoffs rarely have a silver lining, these workforce reductions mean there is a robust pool of talent available for hire.” “The layoffs that occurred among respondents were broad and impacted a wide range of job families and occupations from trades, truck drivers, technologists and technicians to geoscientists, engineers and information technologists. The talent pool also included occupations that tended to be transferable across industries including finance, accounting, human resources, health and safety, sales, marketing and business development. They also included field operations and drilling workers with transferable skills such as working in safety-sensitive workplaces, critical thinking and problem-solving. As a result, construction and renewable energy companies have begun hiring from this talent pool.”

Canada’s Petroleum Labour Market Institute (PetroLMI- formerly the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada) produces ongoing labour market analysis, recently stating: “The cumulative impacts of a six-year economic downturn, lower demand due to COVID-19 health restrictions, and structural shifts in the oil and gas industry, mean there is a smaller oil and gas workforce in Canada – down 26%, or 58,700 jobs from its peak in 2014.” Their latest detailed labour market data, sourced from Statistics Canada, is here. Analytical reports are compiled here, including a four-part series titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s Energy Workforce: A four-part series on work practices, productivity and opportunities”. On that topic, Norwegian consultancy Rystad Energy ranks Canada, U.S. and Australia as hardest hit in “Covid-19 job toll: Top O&G employer China resilient, US takes larger hit than European peers” , a March 9 newsletter. (The Canadian Energy Research Institute also published Economic Recovery Pathways for Canada’s Energy Industry: Part 2 – Canadian Crude Oil and Natural Gas in September 2020, modelling employment and economic impacts).

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy: Global Forum on Mexico

By staff - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, March 25, 2021

Speakers:

  • Heberto Barrios Castillo, Undersecretary, Mexican Energy Ministry- SENER
  • Martín Esparza, General Secretary, Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas- SME
  • Silvia Ramos Luna, Secretary General, Unión Nacional de Técnicos y Profesionistas Petroleros - UNTyPP
  • Fernando Lopes, trade union consultant in Brazil and former Assistant Secretary General of IndustriALL
  • Ozzi Warwick, Chief Education and Research Officer, Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU), Trinidad and Tobago

Survey of oil and gas workers shows little knowledge of energy transition

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 20, 2021

A report commissioned by international union coalition Industriall examines the geopolitics of fossil fuel producing countries (mainly, the United States, China, Europe and Russia) and the investments and performance of the Oil Majors (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Total, as well as nationally-owned PetroChina, Gazprom and Equinor). Energy transition, national strategies, and oil companies: what are the impacts for workers? was published in November 2020, with the research updated to reflect the impacts of Covid-19. 

In addition to a thorough examination of state and corporate actions, the report asked union representatives from four oil companies about how workers understand the energy transformation and its impact on their own jobs, and whether the concept of Just Transition has become part of their union’s agenda.

Some highlights of the responses:

  • “the union members interviewed showed little knowledge about either the risks that the current transition process can generate for the industrial employee, or about the union discussion that seeks to equate the concern with the decarbonisation of the economy with the notions of equity and social justice. In some cases, even the term “Just Transition” was not known to respondents.”
  • Their lack of knowledge regarding the Just Transition can be justified by the fact that they do not believe that there will be any significant change in the energy mix of these companies.
  • Regarding information about energy transitions within the companies, “Managers are included, but the bottom of the work chain is not”
  • Lacking corporate policies or support, some employees feel compelled to take responsibility for their own re-training

Echoing results of a similar survey of North Sea oil workers in the summer of 2020, published in Offshore: Oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition, one European respondent is quoted saying: “In the end, everyone is looking for job security, good wages and healthy conditions. It doesn’t matter so much if the job is in another area, as long as it is in good working conditions”.

The researchers conclude that: “Far from being just a statement of how disconnected workers are from environmental issues, these researches reveal a window of opportunity for union movements to act in a better communication strategy with their union members, drawing their attention to the climate issue and transforming their hopes for job stability and better working conditions into an ecologically sustainable political agenda.”

The report was commissioned by Industriall and conducted by the Institute of Strategic Studies of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (Ineep), a research organization created by Brazil’s United Federation of Oil and Gas Workers (FUP).

Principles and best practices for a Just Transition for Canada’s fossil fuel workers

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 19, 2021

Economist Jim Stanford has written a timely new report which should be required reading for politicians setting their hair on fire about Joe Biden’s stated intention to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline project on Day one of his presidency. Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels, released on January 18, argues that “the actual number of fossil fuel jobs and the number of communities reliant on the industry is small enough that a just and equitable transition plan for workers is very feasible” – and the key is timing.

Stanford’s report begins by setting out the statistics regarding fossil fuel employment in Canada: “under 1% of total payroll employment in Canada (or about 160,000 jobs) is located in seven industrial sectors which together comprise most of the composite fossil fuel industry. “ Using 2016 Census data, the report discusses the distribution of fossil fuel jobs by province and community, showing that Alberta accounts for 75% of fossil-related jobs in 2016, but even there, only it accounts for 7% of all provincial employment. 18 fossil fuel-dependent communities are named, where fossil fuel jobs account for 9.5% of employment – including two well-known examples, Wood Buffalo/Fort McMurray in Alberta and Estevan in Saskatchewan. The report continues to compare employment in the fossil fuel industry and in the health care sector, Canada’s largest employer. The aim is not to diminish the importance of fossil fuel employment, but to illustrate that employment possibilities exist in other sectors, even within fossil fuel-reliant communities.

Stanford looks ahead and states: “given weakening global demand for fossil fuels, depressed prices, continued infrastructure constraints, and aggressive cost-cutting by fossil fuel employers (shedding labour to protect profits despite lower energy prices), fossil fuel industries will see continued downsizing of their employment footprint.” He summarizes the employment transitions of other sectors in Canada’s history, notably fisheries, auto manufacturing, manufacturing – as well as other sectors currently transitioning, including retail, transportation, and newspapers and media, and documents the overall dynamics which are always churning labour markets. All these arguments build to the report’s final section, which is to outline the principles and best practices for planning effective employment and community transitions for the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. 

Offshore: Oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition

By Gabrielle Jeliazkov, Platform, Ryan Morrison, and Mel Evans - Platform, Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES), Greenpeace, September 29, 2020

‘Offshore’ reveals the results of a survey of 1,383 oil and gas workers in the UK Continental Shelf. Amidst Covid-19, oil market volatility and a looming energy transition, the results and eight case studies demonstrate the dissatisfaction with precarity of work, an appetite to move into alternative industries and the policy proposals to make it happen.

Key survey results include:

  • 43% have been furloughed or made redundant since March
  • 91% of respondents had never heard of the term ‘just transition’
  • 81% would consider leaving the oil and gas industry to work in another sector
  • Given the option of retraining to work elsewhere in the energy sector, more than half would be interested in renewables and offshore wind

Based on the findings of the survey, the authors make recommendations to improve working conditions in the oil and gas sector, address barriers to entry and conditions within the renewables industry and ensure workers are able to help determine policy for the energy transition,

A well-managed energy transformation can meet UK climate commitments while protecting livelihoods and economic wellbeing – provided that the right environmental and social policies are adopted and that the affected workers, trade unions and communities are able to guide policies.

Energy systems help to shape our economic and political structures. As we inevitably change our energy system in the face of climate change, our economic and politics system must change too. An energy future grounded in democracy can create the potential for more just outcomes across society.

Read the text (PDF).

North Sea workers ready to switch to renewables, survey shows

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, September 29, 2020

Most UK oil workers would consider switching to another industry – and, if given the option to retrain, more than half would choose to work on renewable energy, a survey published today shows.

The survey blasts a hole in the argument by trade union leaders that every last drop of oil must be produced, supposedly to preserve jobs. Actually, workers are ready to move away from fossil fuel production – as long as they can work and their families don’t suffer.

The 1383 offshore workers who responded to the survey crave job security, above all. Nearly half of them had been laid off or furloughed since oil prices crashed in March.

Many complained about precarious employment and the contract labour now rife on the North Sea.

The survey, Offshore: oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition, was put together by Platform London, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace.

The survey’s authors seem to be the first people who have actually asked workers what they think.

The Scottish government has a comfortably-funded Just Transition Commission, including trade union chiefs, that recently ran a consultation on its interim report.

But it was campaign groups, working with activists on the ground, who bothered to talk to offshore workers.

The survey, distributed via social media and targeted advertising, garnered 1546 responses. The results excluded replies by 163 people who work in midstream or downstream industries, and are focused on the 1383 respondents who work upstream. That’s a representative sample: about 4.5% of the workforce.

One of the survey’s most sobering results is that, when asked if they had heard of a “just transition”, a staggering 91% of survey respondents said no. (The term “just transition”, nowadays used and misused by politicians, was coined by trade union militants in the 1990s to define the need to fight for social justice during the switch away from fossil fuel burning and other ecologically ruinous practices.)

Big Oil Reality Check

By David Tong, et. al. - Oil Change International, September 2020

As oil and gas companies claim to be part of the solution of the climate crisis, the reality couldn’t be more different. Our new discussion paper analyzes the current climate commitments of eight of the largest integrated oil and fossil gas companies, and reveals that none come close to aligning their actions with the urgent 1.5°C global warming limit as outlined by the Paris Agreement.

This discussion paper measures oil and gas company climate plans against ten minimum criteria, focusing on the ambition, integrity, and ability necessary to implement a just transition and achieve a 1.5°C aligned managed decline of oil and fossil gas. Focusing on the oil majors, BP, Chevron, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Repsol, Shell, and Total, we find that only one company has committed to cutting oil and gas production over the next decade, and even that pledge (BP’s stated commitment to cut production by 40% by 2030) excludes around a third of the oil and gas it invests in extracting via its major share in oil giant Rosneft. Below is a summary table of these criteria included in the discussion paper.

Read the text (PDF).

The End of Oil Is Near: the pandemic may send the petroleum industry to the grave

By Antonia Juhasz - Sierra, August 24, 2020

This past spring, coastlines around the globe took on the feel of an enemy invasion as hundreds of massive oil tankers overwhelmed seaports from South Africa to Singapore. Locals and industry analysts alike used the word armada—typically applied to fleets of warships—to describe scenes such as when a group of tankers left Saudi Arabia en masse and another descended on China. One distressed news article proclaimed that a “floating hoard” of oil sat in tankers anchored across the North Sea, “everywhere from the UK to France and the Netherlands.” In April, the US Coast Guard shared an alarming video that showed dozens of tankers spread out for miles along California’s coast.

On May 12, Greenpeace activists sailed into San Francisco Bay to issue a challenge to the public. In front of the giant Amazon Falcon oil tanker—which had been docked in the bay for weeks, loaded up with Chevron oil—they unfurled a banner reading, “Oil Is Over! The Future Is Up to You.”

The oil industry has turned the oceans into aquatic parking lots—floating storage facilities holding, at their highest levels in early May, some 390 million barrels of crude oil and refined products like gasoline. Between March and May, the amount of oil “stored” at sea nearly tripled, and it has yet to abate in many parts of the world.

This tanker invasion is only one piece of a dangerous buildup in oil supply that is the result of an unprecedented global glut. The coronavirus pandemic has gutted demand, resulting in the current surplus, but it merely exacerbated a problem that’s been plaguing the oil industry for years: the incessant overproduction of a product that the world is desperately trying to wean itself from, with growing success.

Today, the global oil industry is in a tailspin. Demand has cratered, prices have collapsed, and profits are shrinking. The oil majors (giant global corporations including BP, Chevron, and Shell) are taking billions of dollars in losses while cutting tens of thousands of jobs. Smaller companies are declaring bankruptcy, and investors are looking elsewhere for returns. Significant changes to when, where, and how much oil will be produced, and by whom, are already underway. It is clear that the oil industry will not recover from COVID-19 and return to its former self. What form it ultimately takes, or whether it will even survive, is now very much an open question.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has joined other petroleum superpowers in efforts to maintain oil’s dominance. While government bailout programs and subsidies could provide the lifeline the industry needs to stay afloat, such policies will likely throw good money after bad. As Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve governor and former deputy secretary of the Treasury, has written, “Even in the short term, fossil fuels are a terrible investment. . . . It also forestalls the inevitable decline of an industry that can no longer sustain itself.”

In contrast to an agenda that doubles down on dirty fuels, a wealth of green recovery programs aim to keep fossil fuels in the ground as part of a just transition to a sustainable and equitable economy. If these policies prevail, the industry will rapidly shrink to a fraction of its former stature. Thus, as at no other time since the industry’s inception, the actions taken now by the public and by policymakers will determine oil’s fate.

The Greenpeace activists are right. Whether the pandemic marks the end of oil “is up to you.”

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