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Austerity vs. the Planet: The Future of Labor Environmentalism

By Trish Kahle - Dissent, Spring 2016

Last December members of the International Trade Union Confederation joined other civil society activists in a mass sit-in at the COP21 talks in Paris. Unionists and their allies, some 400 strong, filled the social space adjacent to the negotiating rooms for several hours, in defiance of a French ban on protests that remained in effect in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks. The ITUC delegation demanded the negotiators go back to the table and make a serious effort to incorporate labor’s demands for a just transition—which, at its heart, is concerned with making sure workers in environmentally unsustainable industries are retrained and put to work building a new, sustainable economy.

The action, even as it generated energy and media buzz, failed to convince the negotiators. The “just transition” clause of the Paris agreement remained stuck in the preamble (not in the body of the agreement itself, as the ITUC members had demanded), more of a hat tip than grounds for international action. But at least it got a mention—unlike the fossil fuels largely responsible for the climate crisis in the first place. Nowhere in the Paris agreement or its preamble do the words fossil fuel, coal, oil, gas, or pollution appear.

As the talks wrapped up and world leaders hailed a “historic turning point” in the world’s relationship to ongoing climate disruption, environmental activist Chris Williams pointed out that “twenty-one years of treaties and negotiations have all been stepping around the main problem, which is the production of fossil fuels.” For all the pomp and circumstance, this agreement was no different. Meanwhile, the consequences of two decades of inaction become clearer each day. A few weeks after the Paris agreement was signed, scientists confirmed that 2015 was the warmest year on record, with global temperatures approaching 1°C above the twentieth-century average. And those already feeling the worst effects of this climate disruption, predominantly poor people of color, continued to have the least say in how to combat it.

Just as they have been dismissed in international climate negotiations, workers have largely been excluded from the fragile global recovery since 2008. Some 197 million people around the world are jobless, with young people making up over a third of this number. Unemployment in southern and eastern Europe remains particularly high, still hovering at 24.6 percent in austerity-ravaged Greece, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East.

The picture in the OECD economies is not much prettier. In the United States, economic recovery has meant the swapping out of middle-wage jobs, earning between $14 and $21 an hour, for part-time, on-call, low-wage employment with few benefits. Energy-sector jobs, often hailed as the lifeblood of the American economic recovery, have taken a dive as oil prices plunge below $30 a barrel. In 2015 the industry slashed 104,514 jobs, compared to 4,137 the year before. Fracking boom state North Dakota went from ranking first in U.S. job growth to dead last.

All this takes place in the context of a weakened labor movement that has failed to maintain workers’ expected standard of living in the face of ongoing restructuring in the world economy and, particularly in the United States, political backsliding. The degradation of work and the destruction of the environment have proceeded hand in hand. Good jobs keep going away, but fossil fuels haven’t gone anywhere. And yet the industry-propagated myth of “jobs versus the environment” persists. From the moment Congress debated anti-pollution legislation in the early 1970s, fossil fuel industry leaders promised such regulation would destroy the heavily unionized employment in the industry. In 1971 the Chamber of Commerce warned that the passage of the Clean Air Act could lead to the collapse of “entire industries,” while auto industry lobbyists prophesied “business catastrophe.” Four decades later, the talking points remain the same: the Heritage Foundation claims that Obama’s Clean Power Plan will cost 1 million U.S. jobs, while West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito says that new coal rules threaten to “regulate out of existence” her state’s key industry.

The problem with this story is that environmental regulation never got the chance to destroy whole sectors of “good jobs,” as opponents of pollution regulation promised it would; the fossil fuel companies themselves, with the winds of free-market fundamentalism at their backs, destroyed them instead. A decade after the passage of the Clean Air Act, the United States was producing more cars and fossil fuels than ever, and employing a record number of workers to do so. Another decade later, as the Cold War was ending, U.S. fossil fuel production was still going strong, but the jobs were evaporating.

It wasn’t just fossil fuels, of course. The decline in manufacturing jobs, union density, and real wages wrought by neoliberal restructuring hollowed out the prospects of the entire American working class. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the resulting misery has only been exacerbated by government austerity and anti-union measures, as manufactured scarcity is marshaled to frighten workers into concessions.

Well, if You Ask Me: Oil and Me

By Dano T Bob - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 14, 2016

So, a large part of my life has revolved around oil refineries.

I was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana, a suburb of Louisville , Kentucky in 1981. My father worked for Ashland Oil (now Marathon Oil) in their Louisville Refinery. This refinery was shut down in 1983, and my dad accepted a transfer to Ashland Oil’s main operation in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, where my family moved when I was 2 years old. Many other workers from Louisville, and from another shuttered refinery in Buffalo, New York were also relocated to the Ashland Oil refinery there.

So, my entire childhood, youth, life, etc. were directly affected by the flux of the industrial economy, one that is now dying or dead in most of the U.S., offshored to other places for higher profits and lax regulation. And as my life was affected by this move, I learned many things from this refinery, which still touches me in various ways.

The refinery is why I grew up in Appalachian, Kentucky, never knowing another place until traveling and moving around years later. Hell, the high school I went to was named after former Ashland Oil executive Paul G. Blazer, know for his pioneering work to seek federal subsidies for the domestic oil industry in the U.S. (ugh, I know, right?) This refinery paid for most everything in my life (my mother worked as well, but for minimal wages), clothes, school, cars, what have you. This refinery not only influenced me economically in a personal way, but it controlled the economy of the whole town and region, sponsoring events and filling city coffers with tax revenue and the like. When it was bought out in 1998 by Marathon Oil from Ohio, and the corporate office in Ashland closed and jobs were slashed, this decimated the area in a way that it has never recovered from. The NAFTA years, which also resulted in what has led to near death blows for the steel industry around Ashland as well, were not kind to the Appalachia Rust Belt on the Ohio River. People left, capital left, towns shrank in half, infrastructure crumbed and drugs arrived. For a good read about these years in Appalachia and how folks fought back, I highly recommend the book, “To Move a Mountain:Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia.”

As industry fled, its residual pollution and the consequences remained. This refinery also not only affected my health and my families, but the health of the whole region, and still continues to do so. Beyond destroying my dad’s back, industry also worked over the air quality of the region. One gem from a few years ago, concerning the elementary school that I went to and that my mom worked at, is linked here: “Chemical found in air outside 15 schools” Oh, of those schools, three of them are in Ashland, and all of them were exposed to, “elevated levels of a substance that — in a more potent form — was also used as a chemical weapon during World War I.”

This link with Ashland Oil extends to my adult working life as well, again concerning not only air pollution but water pollution as well. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who used to employ your truly, fought its first big campaign back in the 1980’s and 90’s against Ashland Oil and their assault on the health and environment of the community. A summary of their great work on this can be found here. Highlights include: “in response to persistent (ten-years) and intense pressure from OVEC members and the organized surrounding communities, the US Department of Justice fined Ashland $5.8 million, and forced them to put aside over $30 million to bring their three US refineries into full compliance with pollution laws. Ashland was forced to install video cameras linked to regulators’ offices for pollution monitoring-the first such action taken in the United States.”

Ashland Oil later went on to spin off its nascent coal division into a separate company, which became Arch Coal, which is now the second largest supplier of coal in the U.S and the major proponent of Mountaintop Removal coal mining in Appalachia.

This oil refinery also shaped my views of organized labor and the power of a union. My father was a proud member of OCAW, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, which later became PACE and was eventually folded into the United Steelworkers union. These union wages and benefits are what prompted my father and my family to relocated for this job, and also made them able to pay for the things I mentioned previously. It was not just oil that enable me to have a middle class upbringing, and it was not just my father’s labor, it was the collective labor of all those at the refinery and their collective union bargaining for these wages and benefits. I distinctly remember a labor dispute in the early 90’s, the picket lines, the strike fund, the scabs and the solidarity. It gave me a profound respect for these brave workers and how the middle class was built in this country, which was not given to us by corporations but by us demanding our fair share. It was also great to see their successful labor action of last year as part of a nationwide refinery strike, speaking up for worker safety and winning.

EcoUnionist News #54

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 30, 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 Story:

Green Bans:

Bread and Roses:

An Injury to One is an Injury to All:

Carbon Bubble:

Just Transition:

Other News:

For more green news, please visit our news feeds section on ecology.iww.org; Twitter #IWWEUC; Hashtags: #greenunionism #greensyndicalism #IWW

EcoUnionist News #52

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 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 following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Fracking the EPA:

Bread and Roses:

An Injury to One is an Injury to All:

1267-Watch:

Carbon Bubble:

Just Transition:

Other News:

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

A Houston Wobbly’s Reflection on the USW Strike

By Adelita - Unity and Struggle, May 11, 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.

Unions’ power is in decay and lately have been resorting to more creative methods in order to remain relevant. We’ve seen the Democrats putting their money behind the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight For $15 in Houston at the same time attempting to “turn Texas blue.” But this dependency of unions like SEIU and the United Steel Workers (USW) on the Democratic Party means they are severely limited in what they are willing to do in the realm of tactics. This along with union density being sharply in decline, as well as union power being undermined by Right-to-Work spreading to states like Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, means the unions are not up for waging anything close to a class struggle. Instead unions like the USW maintain their position as representing only certain interests and timidly bargaining around them.

Texas, like other Right-to-Work states, has a working class that is almost entirely disconnected with their own fighting traditions. There is no real culture of workers resistance, union or not, nor is there any historical memory of fighting strikes. However, recently in Houston we have seen a few significant developments unfolding in labor starting with the immigrant rights movement and detention center hunger and labor strikes, the Maximus Coffee strike and lockout at the end of 2013, the ongoing Fight For $15 “movement” and its semi-annual spectacles, and the most recent and equally significant, the USW refinery strikes. These developments are very exciting for Houston not simply because of the lack of historical memory of struggle to draw from, but also due to the high density of industry in Houston which is unlike most of the country.  This makes Houston a critical choke point for US capital and thus pivotal for workers struggle nationally.

Houston’s remarkably large industrial sector provides a lot of semi-skilled labor opportunities and has been instrumental in Houston’s ability to float the crisis better than most of the country. This and the extremely low levels of reproduction of the class, especially of black and immigrant people who make up the unskilled, low-wage, and casualized sectors of the economy. This leaves refinery work to be primarily composed of white and US-born Latino workers.

When the USW strike started it was the first strike the refineries and their workers saw in 30 years. Yet the USW was unable to carry out a successful strike nationally or locally. This is due to union decline mentioned above, but also because one-third of the oil industry is unorganized (many of which are contract workers). Also, the relationship between the USW and the Obama administration impacted the overall strategy of the strike. Only 5,000 workers were pulled out, a mere ten percent of all union workers, while local union leaders claimed this was part of their strategy. Overall this affected only about 20% of production which is pretty insignificant and we realized quickly that most workers had little to no information about the strike or negotiations. Locally the USW’s timidness looked like a handful of workers carrying signs at each gate while being unable to block scabs from crossing, or from even standing or parking on company property. The international didn’t even use their massive treasury to support their striking members.  It was clear that the USW was not in a position to be able to wage a political struggle against oil because they are beholden to the ruling party.

EcoUnionist News #47

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 14, 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:

May Day:

An Injury to One is an Injury to All:

USW Refinery Strike:

Carbon Bubble:

Just Transition:

1267-Watch:

Bread and Roses:

Other News:

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

EcoUnionist News #45

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 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:

Bread and Roses:

USW Refinery Strike:

Carbon Bubble:

Just Transition:

1267-Watch:

Health and Safety:

Other News:

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

EcoUnionist News #44

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, March 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:

USW Refinery Workers Strike News:

Carbon Bubble:

Just Transition:

1267-Watch:

Health and Safety:

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

EcoUnionist News #43

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, March 19, 2015; image by Jon Flanders

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:

USW Refinery Workers Strike News:

Carbon Bubble:

Health and Safety:

Other News:

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

USW Striking Oil Workers And Supporters Speakout For Health And Safety At Tesoro Refinery

By Steve Zeltser - Labor Video Project, February 13, 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.

Striking USW 5 Tesoro oil workers rallied on February 12, 2015 at the refinery in Pacheco, California. They were joined by CNA nurses and environmentalists who raised the issue of health and safety for not only the workers but the communities. This is the first national strike since 1980 and the companies have record profits.

Some workers face extreme fatigue with 14 days of continuous work and also short staffed crews that threaten their safety and the communities.

Additionally protesters charged that Richmond Chevron refinery managers are threatening to continue to operate the refinery with replacement workers if the USW workers go on strike

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