Striking for climate justice

Nurses join oil workers
Nurses join oil workers on the picket line in Martinez, CA. Photo: National Nurses United / Facebook
Peter Rugh, Dissent, Feb 21 2015 - 15:45

When unionized oil workers at the Tesoro Golden Eagle plant in Martinez, California walked off the job on February 1 to demand safer working conditions, they received some unexpected company on the picket line. Since the beginning of the strike, which has expanded from nine to eleven refineries nationwide, environmental activists with Communities for a Better Environment have joined members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union for their daily protests outside the plant.

Nationally, the Sierra Club and Oil Change international have expressed their support for the workers and, in Los Angeles, members of System Change Not Climate Change, an ecosocialist network of which this reporter is a member, have taken part in pickets at Tesoro’s Carson facility.

Thirteen percent of U.S. oil production was thrown into jeopardy when USW’s negotiations with Royal Dutch Shell, who is bargaining on behalf of the oil industry, failed to yield a new contract at the beginning of the month. So far, management has managed to keep up production in the workers’ absence at all but the Martinez refinery. But, if the strike spreads further—to the more than 230 USW-unionized terminals, pipelines, refineries, and petrochemical plants across the country—64 percent of U.S. oil production could be crippled, according to Bloomberg Business.

At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive for environmentalists to align themselves with workers who, every day, run the machines that spew noxious, climate-change-inducing gases into the air. Environmental campaigners in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Tesoro Golden is located, have long fought to cut emissions and ultimately shut down the cluster of refineries around them. But instead of animosity, environmental activists have so far expressed solidarity with the oil workers, and recognition that their fight has consequences far beyond the refineries. Andrés Soto, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, says that his group is in common cause with the strikers and that “the [United] Steelworkers have welcomed our presence. . . . If the refineries are safer, we’re all safer.”

Soto would know. He lives in Richmond, California—about half an hour’s drive from Martinez—where, in 2012, a massive cloud of black smoke enveloped an entire neighborhood when sulfur corroded a pipe at the local Chevron refinery. Approximately 15,000 people sought medical attention, complaining of symptoms such as headaches and difficulty breathing, including nineteen workers who initially responded to the fire. A January report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) noted that the company knew in advance the plant’s pipes were corroding and, for as long as a decade, had failed to heed staff recommendations to inspect and replace them.

A Chevron representative, when approached for comment, stated that the company “believes the CSB has presented an inaccurate depiction of the Richmond Refinery’s current process safety culture” and that “The refinery continues to move forward on a wide range of actions in response to the August 2012 incident.” Chevron did not comment on whether or not it would act on CSB recommendations for the establishment of a community safety oversight board comprised of plant workers, nearby residents, and local elected officials. Meanwhile, the USW contends that many of practices that led to the fire in Richmond remain prevalent in the industry.

Just this Wednesday, four contract workers at an ExxonMobil refinery outside of Los Angeles were hospitalized when an electrostatic precipitator they were repairing exploded, shattering the windows of buildings in the surrounding area. Health officials said they are monitoring air quality following the blast and advised children, the elderly, and those with heart or respiratory illnesses to remain indoors.

Facing such risks on a daily basis, workers at the Chevron refinery in Richmond are considering joining the USW strike. Among the workers who already have are employees at a plant in Whiting, Indiana, where more than 1,600 gallons of tar sands crude spewed into Lake Michigan last March, nearly contaminating the drinking water for 7 million people in Chicago and the surrounding area.

“This work stoppage is about onerous overtime, unsafe staffing levels, [and] dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who is leading the negotiations with Shell, in a statement. USW Local 5 financial secretary Jim Payne said that throughout contract negotiations, the oil companies were willing to accept demands for better pay but, contrary to popular perception, they have balked at measures to improve safety. “Most people assume that workers go on strike for more money. But . . . money isn’t really the issue here,” Payne, whose local represent workers at the Richmond facility, Tesoro Golden, and other nearby refineries, told In These Times.

Of course, the two issues are not entirely separate. Both safety and workers’ pay are at stake as the union declines and the industry increasingly relies on contract labor.

“Over the years the companies have compensated for the attrition of the USW membership by backfilling with contractors,” said Payne. “The level of training has obviously dropped off because of that.”

As a result, says Beevers, “fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities” are daily occurrences at refineries across the country. This underlying public health threat helps explain the presence of another contingent on the picket line outside the Martinez refinery last week: the California Nurses Association.

“We stand in solidarity over their safety concerns and the fact that they are the front-line workers who are going to see when something is wrong,” Katy Roemer, a spokeswoman for the National Nurses United-affiliated union told the San Jose Mercury News. As nurses take stock of the growing dangers posed by fossil fuels—whether treating patients with emissions-related illnesses such as asthma, those who have been struck by extreme weather events like 2012’s superstorm Sandy, or oil and gas workers themselves—they are increasingly testifying to the fact that climate change is not just an “environmental” issue. Among major U.S. unions, National Nurses United (NNU) has been perhaps the most vocal on the subject of climate change. The union’s support for striking oil workers hints at the kinds of coalitions we will need to see more of—within the labor movement and beyond—if we are to seriously envision a just transition from “an extractive economy (carbon spewing fossil fuels) to a restorative and renewable economy,” as a NNU statement put it.

Even if workers’ safety demands overlap with environmental and public health concerns, the strength of today’s budding labor–green alliance remains uncertain, since the strikers’ livelihoods are tied to an industry that activists like Better Environment’s Andrés Soto would ultimately like to see abolished. Soto, however, doesn’t see this as a zero-sum game. He hopes that unionists and environmental activists will remain united around a long-term vision of a sustainable economy. “We want to work with the refineries to stop producing fossil fuels and to start producing renewable energy,” he says. “We’re calling for a just transition off of fossil fuels, where the community is not left without revenue should production stop.”

In Richmond, the makings of that just transition are already underway. The city government, led by Green Party mayor Gayle McLaughlin, has raised taxes on Chevron and worked with campaigners like Soto to put the funds towards a solar jobs program that has made it a Bay Area leader in photovoltaic panel installations.

But Soto acknowledges that labor is still divided on environmental questions. The building trades unions, representing workers who perform construction and maintenance at refineries, have vocally lobbied for expanding oil production, pushing for projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

“They don’t care what the project is as long as there is work,” Soto said, noting that this attitude sometimes puts them at odds with fellow trade unionists. At the Marathon Petroleum refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, where USW workers walked out February 1, building trades workers crossed the picket line and resumed work last week.

Fossil-fuel enthusiasm is not unanimous across the building trades unions, however; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 in New York City, for example, notably endorsed the People’s Climate March in Manhattan last fall. Jeremy Brecher, founder of Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) and author of Strike! and Jobs Beyond Coal: A Manual for Communities, Workers, and Environmentalists argues that the current oil workers’ walkout could begin to lay the groundwork for an ecologically minded trade union movement that moves beyond workplace demands.

“It is a critical first step for environmentalists to publicly proclaim that the fossil fuel industry is destroying the lives of its workers just as it is destroying the lives of people around the planet and to embody that perception with concrete acts of solidarity,” Brecher said.

“We need a broad plan for full employment through jobs that makes the transition to a climate-safe economy,” he continued. “None of us can protect ourselves and our posterity from devastation by climate change by ourselves—we can only protect ourselves by protecting each other. Climate protection is the new solidarity.”


Peter Rugh is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He contributes to VICE and is a correspondent for Waging Nonviolence.