How Big Oil killed an initiative in Washington

November 12, 2018

Steve Leigh explains how the oil bosses defeated a modest clean energy initiative on the ballot in Washington earlier this month — and what unions could have done to stop them.

WASHINGTON STATE’S Initiative 1631, a modest measure that would have instituted a small carbon fee and used the money to develop clean energy and provide thousands of new jobs, was defeated in the November 6 elections by a multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign by oil and energy companies.

“The initiative was hardly a fossil-fuel killer,” reported Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone. “In fact, it was distressingly modest: It would put a price on carbon pollution that starts at $15 per ton in 2020 and rises $2 a year until 2035, where it would reach around $55.”

Goodell added: “This modest fee (don’t call it a tax!) is far below what most economists believe is necessary to really have a transformative impact on our energy system, especially in a state like Washington, which has a lot of clean hydro power, but it was a start.”

But that was too much for oil and other energy corporations, which killed that mild move toward ecological sanity. In the most expensive initiative campaign in Washington state history, they raised over $31 million to stop this threat to their profits. Proponents of 1631 spent less than half this amount.

The Andeavor Anacortes Refinery north of Seattle
The Andeavor Anacortes Refinery north of Seattle

The top contributors to the defeat were oil companies including BP, Phillips 66 and the Western States Petroleum Association, as well Koch Industries and the Association of Washington Business.

The oil companies used their millions to blast out nonstop lies on TV, the internet and mailers. Though the fee would be charged to the corporations, ads claimed that it was a tax directly on average people. Either the oil companies were suddenly worried about the economic welfare of voters (an unlikely prospect) or they realized that 1631 would have cut into their profits.

The union movement was divided on this initiative. Many construction unions opposed the initiative, including Seattle and Longview Building and Construction Trades Council, Laborers, Operating Engineers, Cement Masons and Plasterers, Electrical Workers and Iron Workers. Others, including Service Employees International Union and United Food and Commercial Workers, supported it.

Unfortunately, many union leaders follow the line of least resistance in cases of initiatives like this one. Instead of challenging corporate priorities and defending the interests of their members for clean air and water, they support the promise of jobs.

Though 1631 would have provided 40,000 new jobs in developing solar and wind energy, some union leaders feared that the oil industry would lose jobs. They had no confidence in their ability to fight the corporations, so they accepted the crumbs from the corporate table.


THIS CAMPAIGN represented a typical pattern of corporate investment: Spend a few million on an initiative or politician and reap tens of millions or even billions in reduced taxes or other subsidies. Investment in politics in the U.S. yields the highest rate of return of any investment a corporation can make. This is why election spending is so dominated by corporations and the rich.

Capitalism skews the so-called democratic process in the direction of the rich. This is obviously true with candidates who need to get through the corporate media filter to even be considered serious. They then have to cater to the rich to collect enough money to run a campaign.

However, this is also true of initiative campaigns. Big money doesn’t always win, but it always influences the results. It is very difficult for a grassroots campaign to overcome the power of big money when corporations are united against it.

Though there will never be full democracy as long as there are concentrations of wealth, workers, oppressed people and the poor can win short term-victories using their collective power. Especially with strikes, sit-ins and disruptive mass actions, we can force the politicians to grant some reforms.

Mass movements have been the major source of these reforms — from Social Security, welfare, minimum-wage laws and unemployment compensation in the 1930s to civil rights, Medicare and abortion rights in the 1960s and 1970s and same-sex marriage and the $15-an-hour minimum wage in many areas more recently.

Though the initiative process is harder to use in winning reforms, it can sometimes be effective. Politicians are usually ultimately controlled by their donors and the corporate political parties they are part of. Initiatives focus on one or a few issues and can move public opinion in a positive direction, even if they lose.

However, winning an initiative campaign that challenges corporate interests is very difficult. Besides the organizational challenge of building a large mass campaign, it requires winning support from different progressive groups ahead of time.

This is where labor activists have an especially important role to play. In U.S. history, there has always been a battle between class struggle and class collaboration. Should labor take the easy road of supporting corporate interests by supporting corporate candidates and initiatives? Or should labor understand that its fundamental interests conflict with the those of the corporations?

A unified labor movement that directly confronted the oil companies on 1631 would have made the campaign so much stronger. It would have undercut the confusion that Big Oil tried to sew.

As labor activists fight for a class-struggle policy on economic issues, they will need to fight for a class-struggle policy on political issues as well. The old labor slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” needs to be expanded to “An injury to all is an injury to each.”

Dirty air and water and global warming hurt everyone, even those who might gain a job in the short term on an oil rig. Labor needs to fight for jobs in clean energy, so no worker has to choose between feeding their family and helping to kill the planet.

No one should fault an individual worker for taking a dirty energy job. Sometimes these are all that are available. But we can fault labor leaders for not fighting for an energy policy that makes these tragic choices unnecessary.

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