In their push to halt construction of the Keystone XL and other pipelines in recent years, environmentalists have often put a familiar question to labor: Which side are you on? More often than not, unions have ended up on the other side of the line in the tar sand, backing the oil and gas industry in its efforts to expand the pipeline and drilling projects that are poised to push us past the point of carbon no return.
With hard-hit construction and trade workers swayed easily by industry’s promise of jobs, no matter how short term, the prospects for recruiting labor in the fight against climate change often look grim. But given that the workers who drill, mine and frack the earth — often at enormous risk to their health and safety — are specially poised to shut down these operations, the environmental movement can’t afford to give up on the idea of a robust blue-green alliance. In order to bring about such an alliance, however, the movement must offer workers something more than the distant promise of green jobs.
On Feb. 1, members of the United Steelworkers (USW) launched the first nationwide refinery strike in more than 30 years, representing a crucial opportunity for environmentalists to stand alongside workers taking on Big Oil. The work stoppage expanded this week to more than 6,500 workers who have walked off the job at 15 refineries and chemical plants across the country.
The historic labor action is taking aim at the grueling conditions that make refineries among the most dangerous places to work in the U.S.; workers in the gas and oil industry are more than six times as likely to die on the job as the average American. In addition to a wage increase, the USW is fighting for adequate staffing, regulations governing the use of nonunion contractors who the union says are often inadequately trained and protections against forced overtime and fatigue in an industry in which workers frequently have 12-hour shifts with no days off for more than a week at a time.