“Our local union has lost 14 members in 16 years. Quite frankly, we’re tired of our coworkers being killed and being subjected to this risk.” Steve Garey, President of Local 12-591

On February 1, around 3,800 United Steel Workers (USW) union members at 9 oil refineries across the United States went on strike after the oil companies walked away from negotiations. Since then workers at two more refineries have joined the strike. The oil workers are demanding an end to outsourcing, short staffing, and mandatory overtime in the national contract bargaining sessions. These conditions not only endanger the safety and well-being of the workers but also of the communities in which they reside. Resulting fatigue can lead to mistakes or oversights which, when refining oil, can have disastrous consequences.

Photo by: KUOW PHOTO/BOND HUBERMAN
Photo by: KUOW PHOTO/BOND HUBERMAN

The workers at the March Point Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, WA, one of the eleven USW represented refineries now on strike, have seen their fair share of disasters. On April 2, 2010 the Tesoro refinery was rocked by an explosion in the naphtha unit that killed 7 USW Local 12-591 workers. Containing naphtha, a volatile by-product of refining oil, involves intense heat and pressure. The heat exchanger used had been installed in 1972 and, according to the Chemical Safety Board, had never been inspected for the corrosion that led to its explosion, and the untimely death of 7 workers (kuow.org, “No Criminal Charges in Deadly Tesoro Refinery Explosion”). Steve Garey, President of Local 12-591, was quoted in The Stranger newspaper saying, “Our local union has lost 14 members in 16 years. Quite frankly, we’re tired of our coworkers being killed and being subjected to this risk.”

Fatal consequences at the hands of Big Oil companies and their tireless profit-seeking are exactly why the USW is out on strike, and exactly why other union members, non-union workers, environmentalists, and social justice activists should support them. The Socialist Alternative Whatcom County branch, along with other working class and social justice organizations, joined the picket line to support the striking oil workers at the March Point Tesoro refinery on February 7.

Morale was high and roughly 30 USW members along with several International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) members and firefighters were picketing the main gate when we arrived. There were 150 total picketers at all the gates throughout the day. At this point the refineries are being run by a combination of managers, non-union “contractors” and retired oil workers (known as “scabs” for working during a strike).

What will it take to win?

For the strike to be successful Big Oil will have to feel it where it hurts most, their profits. Production should be stopped by continuing the pickets and building them larger to make it harder for management and the scabs to run the refineries. This should be done not only as a strike measure but as a safety measure as well. Running the refineries without skilled experienced union labor will inevitably lead to disaster.

In addition to building the pickets larger, the USW should call for their members to strike at the remaining refineries. At the moment the eleven refineries on strike account for a little over 10% of US refining capacity. If the remainder of the USW members were to strike it would affect nearly 64% of refining capacity! This action would certainly affect Big Oil’s bottom line and would force them to come to terms as soon as possible.

Even if the oil workers were to win all of their demands and more, history shows us that Tesoro, Shell, BP, and all the other Big Oil corporations would come back and attack those gains in the future. Even after making billions in profits, the oil barons never get their fill and must remain “competitive” with other producers by drastically cutting costs wherever they can. Risking workers’ lives is more profitable, in the end, than providing safe staffing levels, conducting routine and comprehensive inspections, and hiring enough people to do away with mandatory overtime.

For democratic control of energy production

Under the current system, workers are not guaranteed safe working conditions. After the Chemical Safety Board, which has no ability to impose fines or reprimand in any way the oil companies it inspects, found the Tesoro plant to be in violation of dozens of safety standards, a fatal explosion occurred. Additionally, after Tesoro was fined $2.39 million by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, the largest workplace fine in the department’s history, the courts ultimately reduced the fine to $490,500. Tesoro was not found guilty of any criminal charges following a 4-year investigation despite the fact that they had willfully broken workplace safety laws an outrageous 39 times (KUOW.org, “No Criminal Charges”)!

The bosses of the Big Oil corporations are destroying our environment, wrecking our climate, and refusing to implement safety standards for their workers. What right do they have to decide our future?

Workers install solar panels
Workers install solar panels

The resources should be taken out of the hands of the corporations and put into the hands of the workers and community. Only by turning over the levers of power and decision making ability to those who work on the shop floor each day and to those who live in the blast zone of potential catastrophe can we guarantee safety for workers and the community.

We could use the billions of dollars in revenue made by the oil industry each year to invest in the proper equipment, inspections, and staff that the privatized oil companies refuse to invest in. Further, a significant portion of revenue could easily be spent on researching and actually developing renewable energy production such as wind, solar, and hydro-electric power to rapidly switch to an environmentally sustainable economy. The entire process would create millions of jobs and would involve subsidized worker training programs. Oil workers could then choose to work in safer refineries or get trained to work in the much safer renewables field at no cost to themselves.

Socialist Alternative stands in complete solidarity with the striking oil workers and we offer whatever support we can to fight alongside the USW for a fair contract and safe refineries. We encourage the community to stand with the USW workers who are fighting for the safety of our communities.

 

 

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