From the March-April 2015 issue of News & Letters
Martinez, Calif.—On Feb. 12, climate justice activists and nurses from the California Nurses Association (CNA) joined a picket line in solidarity with United Steelworkers (USW) at the Tesoro refinery. Over 5,000 USW workers began a nationwide strike on Feb. 1 at nine refineries and two plants. It was the first national refinery strike since 1980. The key issue in talks with oil companies, represented by Royal Dutch Shell, is workplace health and safety. By Feb. 22 the strike expanded to 15 plants, including 12 refineries, producing over 18% of U.S. capacity.
Environmental justice activists came from nearby residential communities like Richmond, which was hit with a huge plume of toxic fumes after a refinery explosion at Chevron in August 2012. A refinery worker on the picket line said, “Every worker knows what caused that explosion, and that it could have been avoided. Management made a conscious decision to order workers to take the risk after they figured their risk/reward odds. They lost the bet. Workers here aren’t going to gamble with ours or the community’s health and safety.”
Over 100 nurses from CNA made up the largest contingent of picketers, who stopped many delivery trucks from entering the refinery. Nurses said their solidarity action was natural because they have been engaged in their own prolonged struggle for workplace health and safety for nurses as well as for their patients.
Workers from very different fields, coming together with members of the surrounding community, signal a new multi-dimensional fight against capital’s disregard for human life.
Strike’s broad support
Neighbors and local businesses around refineries are supporting strikers with food and supplies. Nurses have vigorously voiced support and joined picket lines. Environmental groups such as Oil Change International and Greenpeace have also issued statements of support, which has not always been the case. Many have come around to the view that worker safety goes hand in hand with preventing spills and other accidents, and that the corporations, not the workers, are the enemy.
The United Steelworkers—which represents 30,000 oil industry workers at refineries and other facilities—emphasized safety as the central issue. Wages and health benefits are also on the table. Oil companies are making billions in profits—almost $90 billion by just the biggest five in 2014.
CAPITAL FIRST, SAFETY SECOND OR NOT AT ALL
A key sticking point is the companies’ insistence on running the plants too short-handed for safety. Forced overtime leads to fatigue, a known safety hazard. Workers demand stronger safety protocols, including expanded authority to stop work when they see a dangerous situation.
Even when workers do have the authority to stop work in unsafe conditions, they face pressure from management to keep working. The strikers also demand an end to subcontracting maintenance work that had been done by union members.
Refining oil is a dangerous industry, with dozens of refinery fires and over 100 workers killed in an average year. Long-term exposure to toxic chemicals results in sickness and death not only for workers inside the plants, but in surrounding communities—which are usually mostly Black or Latino and never rich.
NO PROTECTION FOR NEIGHBORHOODS
As if to illustrate what the workers are up against, on Feb. 18 a massive explosion blasted the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, Calif., which was not one of the facilities on strike. Four contract workers were injured.
The police advised residents to stay inside with windows sealed—the “shelter-in-place” emergency procedure used as a fallback by authorities who haven’t bothered to provide real protections for people. Some 30 schools were also told to shelter students in place.
Last November the Torrance refinery, where a worker was killed in 2009, was cited for 25 safety and equipment violations, including a lack of emergency procedures related to respirators. Most of the plant’s recent violations stem from cutting corners or covering up accidents and hazards—business as usual at capitalist production facilities, where workers are always squeezed to produce more in less time at lower cost.
The lives lost, crippled or shortened are viewed as a part of doing business. Workers and neighbors are pressured to accept these conditions as the price of getting jobs and revenue for community services. Environmental justice activists have long called this “environmental blackmail.”
IT IS CAPITALISM THAT DESTROYS JOBS
When workers demand better pay and safer conditions, and when communities demand an end to toxic emissions into their air, water and soil, capitalists and their mouthpieces howl that radicals and agitators are trying to destroy jobs. These same mouthpieces relish the way capitalist “progress” destroys jobs every day through automation, outsourcing or competition, which they celebrate as “creative destruction.”
A “Green New Deal” or “just transition”—centered on creating millions of jobs through government renewable energy programs plus training and compensation for workers thrown out of jobs—has been discussed as a basis for a labor-green alliance, but it is designed to moderate, not replace, the capitalist economy with its inherent tendency to disrupt industries and cause massive unemployment.
Mainstream environmental groups and union bureaucrats shy away from a total transformation of this society. This parallels the mainstream environmental movement’s attempts to incorporate the movement against environmental racism into the narrow horizons of existing NGO/foundation/Democratic Party politics.
Support the striking oil refinery workers! Help fight the capitalists and at the same time challenge the ways would-be allies box in rank-and-file workers’ thoughts and goals. Support their reach for a totally new society where people aren’t forced to sell their labor power at the price of exploitation, lack of control over the labor process, risk to life and limb, undermining the environment and climate, and poisoning themselves, their families and their neighbors.