Climate activists raise banner in support of workers outside a Northern California refinery

Green Unionism on the Chevron Richmond Refinery Workers Picket Line

Climate and environmental justice activists have been joining striking refinery workers on the picket line.

Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). The strike has gotten a good deal of media coverage:

However, the capitalist (and progressive) media have mostly missed some important details.

First of all, the striking refinery workers and their elected union leaders continue to emphasize that their issues extend beyond narrow bread and butter issues, such as wages and benefits. A major concern that they continue to articulate is that Chevron continues to try and cut unionized safety jobs and refuses to hire sufficient workers to safely and adequately staff the facility.

Workers have complained of 12-hour days and six-day workweeks. All of these deficiencies not only risk the health and safety of the workers, but the surrounding, mostly BIPOC communities as well. Worse still, they have adverse environmental effects, a problem that hasn’t been lost on the striking workers. As stated by USW Local 5 representative, B.K White:

“If we had more people and could get a better pay rate, maybe our members wouldn’t feel obligated to come in and work as many as 70 hours a week to make ends meet. We don’t believe that is safe. (that and the use of replacement workers) is at the detriment of the city of Richmond and the environment.”

Even less noticed by the media has been the presence of environmental justice activists (including, but not limited to, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free California, Richmond Progressive Alliance, Sierra Club, Sunflower Alliance, Sunrise Movement, and 350), various socialist organizations (including DSA in particular), and members from the nearby front-line BIPOC communities, who have joined the pickets in solidarity with the workers, something the workers have also not hesitated to point out.

Indeed, in spite of the fact that many environmental justice activists and community members are harshly critical of Chevron’s role in turning the city of Richmond into a capital blight-infested sacrifice zone, they recognize that the workers are not their enemies nor are the latter responsible for the damage done by the company. On the contrary, many recognize that the unionized workforce is one of the best mitigations against far worse capital blight. It bears mentioning that there has also been a good deal of support and picket line presence from rank and file workers and union officials from many other unions, including the AFSCME, IBEW, IWW, ILWU, SEIU, UFCW, and the Contra Costa County Central Labor Council.

Such seemingly unlikely bonds of solidarity, though delicate and, at times, fragile didn’t arise out of thin air, but, in fact, have resulted from years of painstaking grassroots organizing.

Building Green Union Bridges

For their part, the United Steelworkers have a lengthy history of social justice and/or green unionism. This includes the incorporation of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), the latter of which included among its number a fellow named Tony Mazzochi, who essentially coined the phrase “just transition”, and was a pioneer of green unionism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Later on, in 1998, the USW and Earth First!, during a contract dispute and subsequent lockout at Kaiser Aluminum in Washington state, joined forces to fight against the ongoing union busting and ecological destruction perpetrated by Kaiser’s parent company, the infamous Maxxam Corporation, led by the infamous Wall Street stock speculator, Charles Hurwitz. Maxxam, of course, had taken over the Pacific Lumber company the previous decade due to Hurwitz’s less than legal stock manipulation, subjected the workers to a major speed-up and transformed the once sustainable and worker friendly, albeit non-union operation into a dark, dystopian mirror universe version of itself. Out of this joining of forces came what would eventually become the Blue-Green Alliance.

These green union roots were readily apparent when the investigations of the fire and explosion (that occurred in the Richmond refinery in August 2012) carried out by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) revealed that, for months, Chevron managers ignored union workers’ repeated warnings that failing safety equipment and refinery infrastructure — which had been neglected to cut costs and maximize profits — would almost certainly lead to a bad end. Disgruntled union officials and environmental justice activists found themselves on the same side of a number of CSB hearings demanding justice as a result. For these and other reasons, when the workers (also members of the USW) at the Shell refinery in Avon (near Martinez) went on strike in 2015, they were joined by many environmental and/or climate justice activists.

More recently, three United Steelworkers Locals, including the aforementioned Local 5, endorsed the Green New Deal-like California Climate Jobs Plan. The extensive and detailed plan for a makeover of the California economy was produced by a team from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Sometimes referred to as the “Pollin Report” after its lead author, economist Robert Pollin, the plan is a California specific entry in a series of state-by-state green jobs, just transition, and green recovery plans developed by PERI.

The California plan offers a set of comprehensive “shovel ready” just transition and jobs plans that specifically address California’s refinery dependent communities and counties. The California Climate Jobs Plans, while not specifically drawn from environmental and/or climate justice and/or front-line community authored just transition plans, does nevertheless include many congruent demands and/or resolutions to the question of how to effectively decarbonize fossil fuel extractivist dependent economies and communities, while providing a fair and just transition to the potentially adversely affected workers, while also making much needed reparations to the affected front line communities.

That’s not to suggest that there is complete harmony between the union workers and the greens. For example, there is currently a plan by the nearby Conoco-Phillips refinery in Rodeo (located northeast of Richmond along the shores of the San Pablo Bay) to partially shift from refining crude to biofuels. For many good reasons, the climate and environmental justice communities consider this plan a capitalist greenwash, but the union workers, including the USW, se biofuels as a potential green transition option. Such complications only go to show just how messy and gritty building a left, anti-capitalist ecosocialist alternative to the climate destroying capitalist dystopia will be, but in spite of these challenges, we must try, nevertheless.

Building these bridges of solidarity between workers — particularly those involved in extractivist industries — and environmentalists, as tedious and complicated as the task might be — is essential if we’re going to succeed in bringing about system change instead of climate catastrophe.

Making the Green Union Road by Walking It

As I have written previously here, here, here, here, here, and here, it is essential for climate and/or environmental justice activists to stand in solidarity with resource extraction workers when the latter are in open disputes with their employers, and while the same cannot be expected to mute their opposition to these same employers’ continued ecological destruction (even if those aforementioned workers go along with their bosses in those instances), they must give some thought to how they frame their messaging.

Very often, resource extraction workers and climate justice activists who (justifiably) demand systemic change have divergent views on what just transition actually means (because they have seemingly disparate goals). Even then, it’s possible for both to work together on areas where they agree (which is likely in the neighborhood of 75-90% on the relevant issues), and agree-to-disagree on the remainder. In spite of the lack of complete congruence, such coalitions can still achieve much, as has been demonstrated recently in Portugal, just to cite one illustrative example.

The opportunities for such coalitions are increasing as the climate crisis worsens, a process which will unfortunately accelerate due to the war in Ukraine, and the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class opportunistically ties to milk it for increased extractivism in a blatant example of disaster capitalism. (See, for example here, here, here, here, and here.) There has been an avalanche of pessimistic and fatalistic predictions that the current conflict will only hasten our dystopian end (see, for example here and here), but these pessimistic predictions overlook the fact that the fossil fuel capitalists face a huge number of obstacles, including everything from supply chain constraints, to growing grassroots opposition, and economic realities (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

If these headwinds against the fossil fuel capitalists’ intended disaster capitalism weren’t strong enough, the youth-led climate strikes — which had been largely blunted by the COVID-19 pandemic — have returned with a vengeance, and those currents will no doubt be reinforced by the ongoing wave of strikes and new union organizing efforts, a wave that has been greatly magnified by the recent victory by the independent and militant Amazaon Labor Union in New York.

Of course, none of these forces guarantee either a USW Local 5 union victory at Chevron, nor do they automatically mean that the aforementioned union will embrace green syndicalism, even if they are joined on the picket line by supportive climate justice activists, as they have been thus far.

And while the first bridges of solidarity between the refinery workers and greens have been successfully built (which can be all too easily burned by careless moves on either side), they’re still not full-blown green syndicalism, yet. However, such first steps can through careful and diligent organizing can lead there, and we can point to historical examples such as the Australian Green Bans, the Lucas Aerospace Workers, the Porto Maghera Workerist Group, or Judi Bari’s efforts with Earth First! – IWW Local #1.

And we mustn’t forget that it was a member of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (which has since merged with the United Steelworkers), Tony Mazzocchi who coined the term Just Transition to begin with, so all of the foundations for such a revolutionary movement exist. The efforts shown by both the refinery workers and greens thus far are hopeful signs. Now, we must help guide them towards the ends we seek: system change not climate change, abolition of wage slavery, and living in harmony with our Earth. We have nothing to lose but our chains except our very existence. So get down to the picket line!

Steve Ongerth is a public transportation worker in Richmond, California. He has been a radical labor/eco organizer for over a quarter century. He cofounded the IWW Environmental Union Caucus and is an active member of System Change Not Climate Change. The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) .

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