On Feb. 1, oil workers went on strike at nine refineries and chemical plants in California, Kentucky, Texas and Washington. The strike by 3,800 workers is the opening salvo in a battle with Big Oil and Big Finance Capital that controls big oil.
The union represents workers at facilities that refine two-thirds of all oil refined in the U.S. The union has been gearing up for this fight for years, and especially over the last year, by building greater member awareness and action. The strike that began Feb. 1 targeted just 10 percent of the refining capacity as a demonstration of the power that can be exerted if demands for justice are not met. Some contracts have not yet expired, and as time goes on an expansion of the strike can reach broader numbers.
The issues triggering the strike are familiar to many workers. Shell, ExxonMobil, Tesoro, Marathon and others are using more and more “contractors” to do the work of regular employees—but without union protection, pensions and the same health insurance, vacations, holidays and other benefits. This is a way to drive out the union and drive down costs by driving down the living standards of all workers.
Company demands to change terms for pensions and health insurance for regular employees also shows how callous the companies are.
Safety—for workers and the community
The companies have a record of ignoring safety for workers and the communities surrounding the refineries. So the union demand for stronger health and safety protection, which is the principal issue in the strike, resonates throughout the community.
The union has demanded full staffing. Many refineries are run short-staffed so that workers have to work 12 or 14 hours per day over many days of the week. In addition, oil companies use a system that requires workers to be on day shift for several days, then work night shift for several days, and so on. It is impossible to get sleep. At the same time, they have been operating refineries at above the designed capacity. All of this spells a disaster in the making.
What happens when the push for production and profits is put before safety of communities and people? Death and destruction. From the 1947 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 581 people and injured 5,000 to the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 170, the deadly results of oil company greed are seen in the lives and communities that have been destroyed.
In February 2014, a chemical release at Tesoro’s Golden Eagle refinery in Martinez, Calif., injured two workers. Tesoro was so worried about bad publicity and the truth getting out that they told the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that they had no legal right to investigate.
Now during the strike, as refineries are operated with non-union scab labor, more and more leaks are being reported, highlighting the danger that the companies will subject communities to in the pursuit of profit.
At the Carson, Calif., refinery, an explosion could devastate an area with a 10-mile radius around the refinery.
The possibility of an explosion is not just theoretical.
In 1996, after experiencing an explosion at the Texaco refinery in nearby Wilmington, Calif., Francisca Garcia, whose family lived several blocks from the refinery, was quoted as saying, “One of these days, we’re going to die.” On that occasion, their eyes and throats were burning while hundreds of firemen battled the blaze.
That Los Angeles County area that includes Long Beach, Wilmington, Carson and other areas has over a dozen refinery operations with a long history of so-called “accidents.” In reality, these “accidents” are really a reflection of not putting safety first. For example:
· In November 1987, a two-day fire at a Mobil refinery shattered windows in nearby homes and injured 10.
· In February 1989, an explosion in Wilmington forced 750 community members to evacuate.
· In January 1992, a blast at the Chevron refinery injured 10.
· In October 1992, 16 workers were injured and 500 residents were evacuated after an explosion at the Texaco refinery in Wilmington.
Three of the struck refineries are owned by Tesoro, whose stock has increased in value by over 45 percent just since June 2014. A better measure of exploitation though is the amount of profit based on investment. Exxon’s gets an 18 percent rate of return and Tesoro over 13 percent.
The amount of wealth amassed by all of Big Oil over the last three years (the period of the last union contract) is staggering. Yet the news media focuses only on the most recent declines in the price of oil as a way to create sympathy for Big Oil. They ignore the mountains of profits made over the last several years, and they ignore the continuing rate of profit—based on the labor of the oil workers. Even with a 21 percent decline in profit, Exxon announced $6.6 billion in profits in just the last three months of 2014.
While the union has made it clear that the primary issue in the strike is not wages but safety, it is important to expose the compensation that the CEOs are making.
In 2013, Tesoro’s CEO made over $13 million in salary, bonuses and stock options. The CEO of Exxon made over $28 million. The millions paid to the CEOs and their underlings stands in stark contrast to the wages of the workers without whom there would be no profits.
Ownership and monopoly
In May 2013, the Federal Trade Commission gave the OK to increase monopoly control of the refinery business in California when it approved Tesoro’s purchase of BP’s southern California business. Tesoro agreed to not lay off any workers for only two years (ending 2015) and to keep up the level of production for three—after which it is free to decrease production to increase price.
The biggest companies control a decisive market share in drilling, fracking, oil field services, refining and even the retail gasoline sector. That gives them power not only for raising prices and gouging poor communities, but also political power.
The dominance of Big Oil on United States policy, on politicians and on the war drive has been well documented.
Standing behind Big Oil is Big Finance Capital. The top 10 financial institutions with investments in Exxon own over 21 percent of the outstanding stock. For Tesoro, the top 10 own over 40 percent of the stock. So a tiny handful of financial institutions like State Street, BlackRock, Bank of New York Mellon, J P Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs are the controlling interests in the oil industry
Pentagon financing strike breaking
Some of the biggest contracts for oil are those with the Pentagon for fuel to power bombers, and so on. Hundreds of millions of dollars go from the Pentagon to Big Oil.
During the strike when the oil companies are trying to operate with untrained scab labor, safety is most at risk. Yet the United States government has not stopped these payments to the oil companies.
Everyone has an interest in showing solidarity with oil workers.
Communities who care about the environment and safety should be among the first to join the picket lines. Over the last several decades, the oil workers have been active participants in the environmental movement. Now is the time to reciprocate solidarity.
Workers who care about safety on the job should look for every opportunity to be on the picket line and get oil workers to speak at their local meetings. Health and safety laws owe much of their existence to the struggle by oil workers, and it was the oil workers’ strike in 1973 that first forced companies to have health and safety committees.
Workers who want to stop the drive to cut wages and health insurance should know that by stopping the oil companies’ plans in this battle it will make it easier to defeat other companies in the future.
All of us have a reason to support the oil workers—and everyone who can should be at the National Day of Action on Saturday, Feb. 7.