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Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW)

Workers and Environmentalists of the World, Unite!

By Stefania Barca - RoarMag.org, June 3, 2014

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 conflict between labor and the environment is a neoliberal construct. What we need is a broad coalition that can fundamentally transform production.

Nowadays it sounds so familiar, almost natural: the mutually exclusive demands and apparently opposing agendas of labor and the environmentalist movement. But in fact, this artificial division is nothing more than a crucial neoliberal strategy to divide two of the most powerful social movements of the industrial era, whose alliance could be a dangerous liaison with the capacity to call into question the very essence of the capitalist “treadmill of production.” It is thus essential that labor and environmental/public health organizations gain a historical perspective on their current state of conflict and become aware of the revolutionary potential of a common political project.

One place where this fact has become much clearer in recent years is the Italian city of Taranto, Apulia, where a number of citizens’ organizations and “committees” emerged in response to one of the most serious occupational, environmental and public health crises of the last decade. These organizations and committees have now begun mobilizing different resources and forms of action — from cyber-activism and film-making to street demonstrations and campaigning — to fight against the occupational blackmail of a local employer. At the last May Day celebrations, they managed to gather more than 100,000 people for a self-organized, crowd-sourced mass concert, held in open competition with the one traditionally organized in Rome by the trade unions confederation and RAI, the national public television.

Tony Mazzocchi Talks About Chemicals and the Workers: 1978 National Film Board of Canada

An answer to the jobs-environment conflict?

By Tony Mazzochi - Green Left - September 8, 1993

Our first concern is to protect the jobs, incomes and working conditions of our members. On the other hand, people who work in hazardous industries, as many union members do, want safe jobs and a healthy environment. We must do everything we can to provide a workplace and environment free from recognised hazards.

The only way out of the jobs versus environment dilemma is to make provision for the workers who lose their jobs in the wake of the country's drastically needed environmental clean-up, or who are displaced or otherwise injured by economic restructuring, or military cutbacks and shifts of manufacturing overseas.

It will take an ambitious, imaginative program of support and re-education — going far beyond the inadequacies and deceptive "job retraining" programs that really mean a downward spiral to low-paying service jobs or subsistence level unemployment income.

The GI Bill after World War II, an innovative and successful program, is the precedent upon which the Superfund for Workers is based. The GI Bill helped more than 13 million ex-servicemen and women between 1945 and 1972 make the transition from military service to skilled employment in the private sector. This program had a formidable price tag, but the country overwhelmingly approved it as an investment in the future. Education became the key to national economic recovery. Education remains just as powerful a force today and is the basis of a concept supported by OCAW called "The Superfund for Workers".

OCAW members are concerned with the environment — our record over the years demonstrates this very fundamental fact. However, our members also are concerned about their jobs. It is small comfort to know that the environment is improving, but our jobs no longer exist.

There is, obviously, a major contradiction to be overcome. We want jobs and a clean environment. Environmental organisations representing millions demand a clean-up of toxics and a halt to the continuing toxification of the environment. However, they lack a clear idea of how to accomplish that desirable goal without a loss in jobs or a mass movement into jobs that pay only the minimum wage.

Our Lives Are at Stake: Workers Fight for Health and Safety (the Shell Strike of 1973)

By Berry Weisberg - OCAW 1-591, July 1973
Background Information by Douglas W. Erlandson - USW Local 12-591

On January 21st, OCAWIU President Bob Grospiron called over 4000 Shell OCAW members from 5 oil refineries and 3 chemical plants, out on strike. Then made a nationwide appeal to the public to boycott Shell Oil while the union continued its fight over the right to bargain health and safety issues.

The union was seeking:

  • 1) The establishment of a Joint Union-Management Health & Safety Committee
  • 2) Wanted the Union committee workers paid while performing official committee duties
  • 3) The right to call in independant Health & Safety inspectors
  • 4) Access to all Company information on both death and disease rates
  • 5) Annual Company medical examinations provided at Company expense

As a tactic for the 1973 strike, OCAW employed the first major "corporate campaign" in U.S. history. OCAW forged alliances with the scientific, academic, environmental and labor communities to fight Shell’s position that it would not bargain over health and safety. The union spent nearly half a million dollars to advertise a nationwide boycott of Shell and to educate the public about the need to protect the health of workers and the communities.

Even though 12 other major oil companies had already signed contracts that provided for the new joint union- management health and safety committees, they assisted Shell by buying their gasoline and blacklisting Shell's strikers. The oil industry's thinking was the new joint H&S committees would get in the way of production and profits.

Shell's corporate spokesman, J.H. Walter called the unions joint H&S committee 'another attempt at featherbedding since the workers could then decide how long they could safely work in the refineries and chemical plants.

Moreover, Shell stated that health & safety was none of the oil workers' business: "We are legally responsible for the health and safety of Shell employees in the workplace and this responsibility cannot be shared". The truth was the oil companies didn't want to give up control in this area.

From 1963-1969, Shell used caged canaries as 'safety devices' at their Houston chemical plant.(true story, no joke!) The canary's job was to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. If the canary died, it was time for the workers to leave. Shell went through a lot of canaries, OCAW was claiming by the time the canary died, the workers would already have been exposed.

The union was also seeking the right to inspect company records and financial reports of the pension funds Shell administered and to be able to grieve the company's arbitrary actions with regard to disability pensions. (The union suspected Shell's pension fund was under funded.) One Anacortes member who worked for Shell for 17 years, was certified by two doctors as being disabled, yet Shell wouldn't allow him disabled benefits even though he met the 15 year employment requirement. For the union, this was an item that needed to be addressed.

The International Representative assigned locally was Virgil Coragliotti, with Representative Tom Burkholder assisting on occasion. Don Yates was the Shell unit chairman and the committee members were Gil Nuessen, Wes Shull, F. D. Ferguson, Bob Melton Sr. Jerry Vrooman was the Local President and Jim Burgess was the financial secretary.

Picket pay was $25 a week. The 1-591 union brothers at General Chemical and Texaco assessed their monthly dues to help support the Shell members. Financial support was also received regularly from the Ferndale OCAW 1-590 local. Because Shell Oil’s daily production was unaffected and they didn’t lose any profits during the strike, the strikers received unemployment benefits under what was then known as the ‘dark plant rule’. Not surprising, Shell Oil later lobbied to get that section of the unemployment law changed.

About a week before the strike Snelsons’ had contracted with Shell to do maintenance work on a recently shutdown furnace. Their plan was to use the Boilermakers union, Local 104 out of Seattle. OCAW had gotten wind of it and a group of about 60 Shell brothers were on site waiting for the 14 building trades members when they attempted to cross the picket line, being led through by Bill Snelson. Several Shell picketers became so upset that they turned over both of Snelsons’ trucks and trailers. At the same time, someone smashed out Snelson's rear window. Out of fear, Snelson romped on the gas throwing John Garner, who was standing in front of him, onto the hood of his car. Garner was able to roll off as Snelson bolted on through. The Sheriff was immediately called.

Fred Nelson, Bob Melton and Charlie Pyburn were identified as the lead individuals involved and were fired. Later, after two days in court, Judge Deierlein had Melton and Pyburn jailed, then sharply criticized Shell management for not maintaining better communications with the union and local law enforcement officials in trying to prevent emotional blow-ups. Later Snelson took OCAW 1-591 to court and won $6700 for the damage done to his vehicles. Shell also fired Virgil Avey for breaking windsphrlds with his picket sign. While the other three were unable to get their jobs back, Fred Nelson was eventually rehired. Old time Union members refer to this incidence as the "Day of the Windstorm."

OCAW also had trouble with the Teamster's Union from Seattle. The same teamster leadership that was scabbing on the United Farm Workers, had ordered their drivers to disregard the picket line established by OCAW. And since there was an injunction limiting the number of pickets to two per gate, the union was unable to do much about the Teamsters pushing through with their trucks.

To keep in the health and safety issue in front of the public, OCAW had teams that traveled the northwest speaking to the news media and public about the need for work place safety. Shell later admitted the mobile speakers bureaus were very effective.

Finally, Shell, in the face of public pressure, bargained a compromised health and safety clause as well as meeting the union's demand allowing the pension fund to be reviewed and grieved if necessary. On June 1st the strike was officially ended.

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