Trade Unionists on the Oil Workers Strike

David Smithers surveys union activists' responses to the USW refinery strike

Half-fought strikes can't win

The headline was “Tesoro L.A. Refinery workers vote to authorize strike”, but, this was nearly three years ago. (Reuters, April 19, 2012) Two years before that a refinery disaster at the same company’s Anacortes refinery killed seven workers in Washington state.

Wilmington is a low density, youthful , and high percentage Latino (86%) and foreign born populated neighborhood in south Los Angeles, featuring the third largest oil field in the United States. There are at least eight major refineries in the area shoreline necklace in Costa County and Solano County, many dating back to the Wilmington Oil Field’s discovery in 1932.

The explosive hazards are spectacular1, but the slow poisoning of air and water impacts workers and the community at large. The refining process releases a number of different and noticeably odorous chemicals into the atmosphere. In the United States, there is strong NIMBY (Not In My Backyard!) pressure against new refineries, and no new refineries have been constructed since Marathon’s Garyville, Louisiana facility in 1976. Many have been expanded or closed due to obsolescence and/or merger activity.

The merger process has accelerated amidst higher fuel prices and fines imposed on BP after the Gulf oil spill. Texas-based Tesoro in particular has made some notable acquisitions from BP. I spoke with M.W., a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) working for the gas trucking company Evans Dedicated, who related to me some on-the-ground conditions for oil industry workers.

M.W. states that the USW and AFL-CIO are resented among the San Diego rank-and-file, “mostly because they always seem to side with the company and accepted a pay cut in 2008 despite the majority of workers voting against it. The arbitration arrangement always seems to favor the union and the company over the drivers.” M.W. suspects this is the case for the refinery workers in Wilmington as well. “The USW chapter president [B.H.], told me that the biggest issue for refinery workers is the non-union outside contractors they want to bring into work.”

Presently the United Steel Workers, according to Reuters, represents workers in 63 refineries and other facilities. Strikes are now ongoing at eleven refineries in Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Kentucky and California.

“It is the first major walkout in the refining sector since 1980. The union wants more rules to reduce worker fatigue, a 6 percent pay bump and measures to prioritize union members for work over contract workers.The 50 percent drop in oil prices is making negotiating tougher for the union than in previous negotiations and giving Shell a major bargaining chip,” Reuters said.

The Industrial Workers of the World and its IWW Environmental Union Caucus (though not official position of either) published an appeal by a rank-and-file Chevron worker from Richmond, California (whose plant is not on the USW list) :

“If you have time we would like to start calling and emailing people of the community as well as emailing Kory Judd, Chevron Richmond refinery Manager, to let them know how you feel about the current actions of Chevron. Here is a list of people to call or email at the bottom. Please be professional when voicing your opinions. Let Kory Judd know how you feel about his lies about safety of the community Chevron will lose the trust of the community again if they run with replacement workers.

Chevron will be running with replacement workers that are fraudulently qualified and do not know the plants or the emergency procedures used to keep the plants from blowing up.

Tesoro has accepted an offer from USW workers to shut down their refinery safely during the strike. Why is Chevron not doing the right thing again? They are not putting safety first, they are putting PROFITS first again.

If USW workers go on strike the community will be at risk with the replacement workers. The Chevron fire department will lose their coverage because Chevron relies on volunteer firefighters who are USW workers. They cannot put a fire out without them and will be risking the community again by not having adequate coverage. They will be putting the lives of the community at risk and when a fire breaks out and are expecting Richmond Fire and surrounding agencies to respond to put it out.

All this in the name of profits and unfair bargaining practices!


Thank you
Robert Watts (a concerned rank & file USW member)
Kory Judd Chevron Richmond Refinery Manger –
Mayor Tom Butt – 510-412-6503
City of Richmond Fire department – 510-307-0848
Public Information Officer/Media Relations, Richomnd Police, Sergeant N. Abetkov – desk line: 510-620-6851 media line – 510-621-1751 or Andrea Baily of Community Engagement – 510-242-5405)”

Of course the Richmond Chevron refinery itself experienced a fire on August 6, 2012. Inspectors had known about the corrosion for years. A small leak was ignored by the head operator. Afterward, the whole community showed its ire.

Another trade unionist weighing in is Richard Mellor, a retired AFSCME Local 444 member who writes in a fiery column that the USW leadership is letting workers down2:

“The United Steelworkers of America, the largest private sector union in the US, struck nine US oil refineries at one minute past midnight on Monday February 1st. It is the biggest strike in 35 years and has struck plants in California, Texas, Kentucky and Washington State.

There was a time when, despite misgivings I had about the failed policies of the union hierarchy, I would be more upbeat in public simply because I felt there was the possibility that some gains could be made if the ranks forced the issue. But we have not yet seen the development of fighting opposition caucuses within organized labor able to challenge the entrenched pro-business bureaucracy and its disastrous policies. These policies flow to a great degree from the Team Concept—–the view that bosses and workers have the same economic interests and goals…

The USW members are resisting what union members have been resisting. We saw it at Boeing…”

Mellor calls for shutting it all down. Mellor points out that union leadership is timid and confused about things like the impact of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) that is now being negotiated, evidenced when the USW’s Leo Gerard praised Democratic Congressman Sander Levin for naively insisting that the TPP should “successfully promote America’s interests.’”

Hey, how about the interests of workers? Not only in the USA, but around the world?

In a reply to Mellor’s post , Mike B. puts it best:

“I’ve been following the 9 plant strike (out of dozens and dozens and dozens of strikeable plants) the entire week. Guys on the picket line in Texas at one plant and literally the next town over their brothers and sisters are on the job working at another site. What the hell kind of strategy is this? These guys might be making a decent clip, but Christ they have bills, rents and house notes. How long until they say screw it and just cross? …They haven’t been on a national strike in decades. You’d have to imagine the strike fund is there. Well, unless they’ve spent all of it on getting the Democrats elected and hey Hillary is going to need their help next cant go all out for this one guys! They’re totally setting the workers up for failure…

Also, this coinciding with the West Coast port bosses threatening to lock out the longshoreman [sic] if a contract isn’t reached within a week. The ILWU spokesman says “hey, we’ve conceded most of our demands and are still open to negotiating” Wow! Some job your doing buddy! Gee, what if the two unions actually harvested the true power of their rank and file and led a movement? As expected, nothing remotely close to this has occurred publicly at least. Governor of Illinois announced today he’s going after organized labor in the state and the NY Times article noted the Democratically controlled legislature was remarkably silent in regards to the Republican’s plans. Gee no wonder the guys at work are so pissed about our union raising our dues to $54.00 a month and 1.8% every year thereafter. I guess the leadership thinks if they just keep funneling our dues into the Democratic coffers they can get the bosses to be a little nicer to us. Again, pathetic.”

Finally, Steve Early of In These Times relates3 that the 3,800 worker strike (out of 30,000!?) has within it the ghost of a past champion and advocate of occupational health and safety. That champion was Tony Mazzocchi, the late top strategist for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). In 1973, the union (now part of USW) struck Shell Oil over workplace safety. Early writes:

“As Mazzocchi’s biographer, Les Leopold notes, ‘the strike helped build a stronger anti-corporate movement” because OCAW members learned “that you can’t win these fights alone.” To win—or even just battle Big Oil to a draw—workers had to join forces with the very same environmental organizations long demonized by the industry as the enemy of labor and management alike.”

The oil refinery business impacts working people and their communities, urban and rural areas, Indian Reservations and the planet itself. The refinery workers of America can’t be left to fight alone. Trade unionists and workers in general should stand with them.


1. Footage at
3. Steve Early worked as a Communications Workers of America organizer and representative and is an author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. Article at