Workers Vanguard No. 1062
20 February 2015
Shut Down All the Refineries!
Victory to Oil Workers Strike!
Picket Lines Mean Dont Cross!
Some 5,200 oil refinery workers represented by the United Steelworkers (USW) are now on strike, chiefly over health and safety issues as well as the contracting out of maintenance jobs. Inadequate staffing forces workers to endure 12-hour shifts for as many as 16 days in a row, leaving them completely exhausted. Such grueling schedules are a major safety issue in this inherently dangerous industry made deadlier by corporate profit-gouging.
Even according to the bosses’ own reports, a fire or explosion occurs at a refinery almost every week. In 2005, a vapor leak at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, ignited when a contractor attempted to start his pickup; the resulting explosion killed 15 workers and injured more than 170. A fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, in August 2012 nearly incinerated 19 employees and forced 15,000 nearby residents to seek medical treatment for respiratory and other ailments. There must be union control of safety, including the right to stop work over dangerous conditions.
Organized labor has taken one hit after another in the bosses’ decades-long war on the unions. A real fight by the refinery workers—for many years organized in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) before ending up through mergers in the USW—could breathe some life into the union movement. USW members produce 64 percent of the fuel in the U.S., meaning that they have tremendous potential social power. Shutting down refinery production altogether would not only cut off the flow of profits to Big Oil but also quickly cause the gears of industry to grind to a halt, threatening the bottom line of a broad section of the U.S. capitalist class.
However, the USW bureaucracy has the union engaging in battle with both hands tied behind its back. When the national contract covering 65 oil refineries expired on February 1, the USW initially struck only nine of those facilities, in California, Texas, Kentucky and Washington state. One week later, the strike was extended to BP refineries in Whiting, Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio. The bulk of the 30,000 USW refinery workers continue to work under rolling 24-hour contract extensions, a move by the union tops that has not sat well with those on the picket lines.
Meanwhile, management and other scabs have kept struck facilities running. In this heavily automated, capital-intensive industry, only a relatively small number of scabs are needed for this strikebreaking activity. As one striker at the Tesoro refinery in Carson, California, told Workers Vanguard, the scabs, who lack sufficient training, are “sitting on a ticking time bomb.” The bosses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to risk a refinery disaster, this time in order to inflict a defeat on the union.
The USW tops, who have acceded to small picket lines restricted to select entrances, seem to want striking workers to wait it out until equipment breaks down or the plants otherwise become inoperable. This strategy is a loser. It avoids hitting the bosses in the pocketbook, where it truly hurts, and drags out the strike. In the last national oil strike, in 1980, the OCAW union tops put up similarly symbolic picket lines (even while striking all unionized refineries); scabs operated the facilities for three months before a settlement was reached.
Further undermining the current strike, building trades workers are overwhelmingly crossing the picket lines to perform maintenance and other jobs. During normal operations, many plants have a mix of union and non-union contract workers in addition to the USW workforce. Reports have emerged of bad blood between the USW and the craft unions, including mutual recriminations over job-stealing claims. Wherever the truth lies in these jurisdictional disputes, there is no excuse for scabbing. If the oil giants are able to have their way with the USW, the craft unions will find themselves in a weaker position when the bosses turn their sights on them. A common front of the USW and the craft unions in struggle against the oil companies would be to the advantage of all refinery workers.
To win decisively, this strike must be extended and all refineries shut down tight with mass picket lines, at every entrance, that no one dares cross. The guiding principle should be one out, all out. In the course of this battle, it is incumbent upon the USW to reach out to the non-union contract workers—who are temporarily hired to maintain plant equipment, then discarded—by striving to bring them into the union with full wages and benefits. A militant strike could also chart a way forward for organizing the non-union refineries and more widely in the oil industry.
Anti-Union Laws and the Capitalist State
Mass pickets would almost certainly be met with government injunctions. Indeed, in most places there are already laws limiting the size and location of picket lines so that scabs have an easy time of it. Unions that honor the picket lines are threatened with fines under the Taft-Hartley Act, which bans secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes. After a week of not crossing the USW pickets at the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, building trades workers were instructed by their union tops to scab in order to avoid “detrimental legal proceedings.” The bosses prohibit such union solidarity in action precisely because it is one of labor’s most effective weapons.
A striker at the BP refinery in Whiting opined to a WV reporter that there hasn’t been a pro-labor law in the past 30 years. In fact, the capitalist government’s “labor law” is designed to hold the unions captive to the class enemy. And the forces of the capitalist state, including the courts and cops, are there to be deployed against striking workers to enforce those laws. Criminally, the USW bureaucracy has welcomed into the union the bosses’ scab-herding security guards, who are cop auxiliaries.
To counter the bosses and their anti-labor arsenal, the unions must make use of their own weapons: their numbers, organization and collective strength. In the early 1980s, a spate of killings of strikers, among them OCAW member Gregory Goobic, who was run over by a scab driving a truck through a picket line at a California refinery, made clear the burning need to build solid mass picket lines. As we observed in “Labor’s Gotta Play Hardball to Win” (WV No. 349, 2 March 1984):
“‘But that’s illegal,’ the bureaucrats whine. So maybe some labor leaders go to jail six months after they surround the terminals with thousands of pickets and call a solidarity strike and the battle is won....
“No decisive gain of labor was ever won in a courtroom or by an act of Congress. Everything the workers movement has won of value has been achieved by mobilizing the ranks of labor in hard-fought struggle, on the picket lines, in plant occupations. What counts is power.”
Picket lines are the battle lines of the class war, where strikes are won or lost based on the balance of forces between the workers and their exploiters.
The USW bureaucrats, like the rest of the AFL-CIO officialdom, hide behind the anti-labor laws as an excuse to avoid sharp class struggle. At the refinery in Martinez, California, picketers who tried to prevent tanker trucks from crossing the lines were told by their own picket captains to stop. With the USW tops playing by the bosses’ rules, it is no wonder that even workers who reminisce about the militant tactics of past labor struggles see little prospect of reviving those traditions. If the unions are to be revitalized, a new class-struggle leadership, imbued with the understanding that the interests of labor and capital are irreconcilably counterposed, must be forged.
The weakened state of labor today does not foreclose the possibility of mounting a real fight in this strike. The USW itself has a total of 850,000 members, not just in steel and refining but other key industries like mining and rubber. Many workers who bring oil and gas to and from the refineries are also in unions, from Teamster truckers and rail engineers to tugboat operators in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). If the full force of the USW was mobilized, and support garnered from these strategic unions, the strike would be vastly more effective, making the bosses think twice about trying to enforce any injunctions.
There have been isolated incidents pointing to the potential for labor solidarity. Members of other unions, including nurses, teachers and auto workers, have joined the picket lines. In Whiting, USW members from nearby steel plants have marched with the pickets. These mostly black steelworkers were warmly welcomed by the largely white refinery workers. One steelworker, from U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana, told WV that he came out to show solidarity in the expectation that it would be reciprocated when the steel contract expires in August. Notably, Teamsters and Ironworkers are not crossing the Whiting picket lines.
In the 1980 oil strike, there was a significant, though brief, show of labor solidarity when the ILWU shut down the Los Angeles port for one day in support of the striking refinery workers (see WV No. 251, 7 March 1980). Today, the longshore workers in the ILWU (and the International Longshoremen’s Association on the East and Gulf Coast) remain key potential allies of the refinery strikers. The ILWU has been working without a contract since July and the shipping bosses have recently imposed a partial lockout (see page 12). A victory by one or both of these powerful unions would redound to the benefit of the entire working class.
A number of capitalist Democratic Party politicians, and even a few Republicans, have expressed support for the strike, with the USW bureaucracy touting a visit by one Democrat, Congressman Gene Green, to a Texas picket line. Striking workers must be clear: bourgeois politicians are no “friends of labor.” In the event the union actually flexes some muscle, they will undoubtedly scatter to the winds. And Democratic president Barack Obama is no better. When 400 Philadelphia transit workers went on strike last June, he ordered them back to work.
The pro-capitalist union officials’ embrace of the Democrats is part and parcel of the lie that there is a partnership between labor and the filthy rich capitalists who run the country. USW International president Leo Gerard, who expresses a special affinity for the current administration, has been tapped repeatedly to sit on White House bodies. In 2010, Gerard was appointed by Obama to his Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations along with various business magnates, including the then-CEO of U.S. Steel. That committee advocates for the economic interests of U.S. imperialism in dominating dependent countries and competing with its rivals overseas, at the expense of working people everywhere.
Openly boasting of his exploits in filing trade complaints against foreign corporations and countries, Gerard is a strong pusher of protectionist poison under the pretext of helping “preserve and grow jobs” in steel and other industries. In fact, this practice gives aid to the profiteering of the U.S. capitalists, while making enemies of workers abroad rather than of the greedy American bosses who exploit USW members. The capitalists always seek to maximize their profits and drive down labor costs (that is, slash wages and worsen work conditions), including by moving production wherever it suits them. During the 1980s and early ’90s, OCAW lost nearly half its membership, largely because U.S. oil companies moved refinery production offshore. With the shale oil boom, domestic refineries have expanded their operations of late.
The protectionism of the USW leadership has given a boost to Big Oil, not least with a 5,000-page suit the union prepared to curtail China’s burgeoning green energy sector. That suit was taken up by the Obama administration with the World Trade Organization. Gerard is notorious for his virulent bashing of China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state where capitalism has been overthrown. In so doing, he eggs on the U.S. imperialists in their counterrevolutionary crusade to reopen that country to untrammeled capitalist exploitation. If successful, Washington’s moves against China would embolden the imperialists in further putting the squeeze on working people around the globe. Just as class-conscious workers defend the USW and other unions against the bosses despite their sellout leaders, workers must defend China against imperialist-backed capitalist counterrevolution despite the misrule of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy.
For New Leadership of the Working Class
Some striking refinery workers hark back to the late OCAW International secretary-treasurer Tony Mazzocchi. In the 1990s, Mazzocchi and other OCAW officials were involved with the Labor Party Advocates (LPA). This lash-up of left-talking union bureaucrats eventually founded their so-called Labor Party in 1996 after years of discussions. However, the LPA, far from a genuine workers party, was never intended to be anything other than a shill for the Democrats and soon faded away. Its aim was to rope workers back into the Democratic Party fold at a time of growing disaffection with both the Republicans and Democrats. Its newsletter Labor Party Advocate (August 1991) explicitly stated: “Organizing Labor Party Advocates is not going to retard the re-birth of the Democrats. On the contrary, it will encourage it.” The working class needs its own party, one standing completely independent from the capitalists and their political representatives.
The chronic fatigue and overwork of USW members is all too familiar to workers across the country. While many people are compelled to work excessive hours just to make ends meet, millions more are unemployed. Over a century ago, massive class battles won the eight-hour workday, a historic gain for labor now substantially eroded. Workers today need to fight for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, linking the fight for decent working conditions to the struggle for jobs for all. A 30-hour workweek at 40 hours’ pay, with the available work divided among everyone, would go a long way toward addressing both unemployment and the serious safety problems resulting from fatigue and understaffing.
The capitalists will, of course, reply that such demands are not practical (at least not if they are to maintain their obscene wealth). Indeed, the felt needs of the working class run right up against the inability of the capitalist system to satisfy them. What we must strive for is a wholly different type of society, a workers America where the productive wealth has been ripped out of the hands of the tiny capitalist elite and put at the disposal of the vast majority. Such a society can be achieved only when the working class, led by a genuine workers party, overthrows capitalist class rule through a socialist revolution and establishes a workers government.