Solidarity in the heartland
"It appeared as if the whole world was one elaborate system, opposed to justice and kindness, and set to making cruelty and pain."
-- Upton Sinclair, from his novel Oil!
WHEN 20TH century author Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! about the birth of the petroleum industry was turned into a film, it was titled There Will Be Blood. The filmmakers weren't kidding. Humans go to war for oil. Workers die drilling and refining it. People die from pollution when oil is processed or burned. Oil may eventually contribute to the extinction of humanity though runaway climate change.
The small city of Whiting, Indiana, is the site of the largest oil refinery in the Midwest. Workers at this sprawling BP facility have been on strike since February 8, part of a nationwide strike by the United Steel Workers (USW).
The strike issues mostly revolve around health and safety--not only for the workers inside the plant, but for the Whiting residents whose modest homes extend nearly to the plant gates. Residents are concerned about toxic substances released into the air and water as well as the possibility of catastrophic explosions.
In early March, members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) rented a bus and rode down to Whiting to join the striking oil workers on the picket line for a few hours. WOCC is best known for its Fight for $15 campaign to organize fast-food workers for $15 an hour and a union.
WOCC member Teresa Cervantes explained why in this translation from her native Spanish: "I am here to support my fellow workers from Fight for $15 and the BP workers who are on strike today fighting for justice and fair wages."
Her solidarity sentiments were echoed by her friend Rufina Aranda, a McDonald's worker in Cicero, Illinois, and a Fight for $15 veteran.
WOCC has a clear policy of labor solidarity, seeking to unite working-class people around its social-justice agenda. The striking oil workers greeted the WOCC members warmly upon arrival at their USW Local 7-1 union hall and promised their solidarity in return.
But more than the tradition of union solidarity unites these two groups of workers. Both labor in different sectors of a vast global petro-empire, the oil workers most obviously because they refine the oil extracted from the planet. But the highly profitable fast-food corporations are an important part of the agribusiness industry that depends heavily on oil, not only to fuel farm equipment, food processing and transport, but to manufacture its pesticides and fertilizers.
Both refinery workers and fast-food workers work in industries that are critical to human civilization--energy and food. But because of the way these industries are organized today, they are hazardous to human health and destructive to the environment.
The owners of these industries also ruthlessly exploit their own workers and resist all attempts to improve working conditions. There is "justice and kindness" in these industries, but they are not found in the boardrooms of BP and McDonald's, but instead are present among the workers who organize to resist the "cruelty and pain" thrust upon them.
I ARRIVED at the West Side Chicago WOCC office just in time to help load water and box lunches on to the bus that would take us to Whiting, about two miles past Chicago's Southeast Side.
Once the thriving heart of Chicago's unionized heavy industry, the Southeast Side was hit hard by the de-industrialization that began in the 1980s. Alongside the economic devastation, it left behind toxic pollution that still causes a multitude of health problems from asthma to cancer.
On the bus, WOCC organizer Caleb Jennings explained how the BP strike we were visiting is part of a nationwide strike of oil workers. "The big issues here are health and safety," said Jennings. "They have been using temporary workers who are not properly trained. The workers put their lives on the line because a lot of things can go wrong in a refinery."
We arrived in Whiting soon after exiting the expressway past the Southeast Side of Chicago. It's an older working-class town with frame-and-brick houses placed close together on relatively narrow streets. A bad explosion and fire at the BP facility would be disastrous.
As we pulled up to the United Steel Workers Local 7-1 HQ I noticed three men splitting logs from a huge woodpile. The workers maintain six picket lines around the clock, and this winter has been especially brutal in the lower Great Lakes. The wood is destined for the burn barrels strikers use to fend off the bitter chill that blows from Lake Michigan.
Besides the usual business offices one finds in any union HQ, Local 7-1 has an open space for meetings and, when we were there, shelves stocked with food for the striking workers. They treated us to a fried chicken lunch, and we reciprocated by donating our box lunches to their pantry.
After lunch, striker Ebony Parker called us together to give us our picket line instructions. Strikes are battles in the ongoing class war, and Parker, as a coordinator of the picketing operations, had the quiet confident demeanor of one used to command.
She made it clear that picket lines will not be coming down until the company delivers a fair contract proposal, saying, "If you all can get help that message out, please do." She continued by saying: "Before we go out we want to make sure everybody stays safe. We are going to be on the line and we want to make sure you are not in the street. We want a peaceful picketing line."
She finished by saying that if there is anything that her union could do for the Fight for $15 struggle, to please tell them.
As we rode in our rented bus to the picket assignment, Parker gave us a quick tour of what we were seeing, pointing out the fire department and the main portion of the facility, what she called "the heart and soul of the refinery."
After passing a picket line at one of the main gates Parker asked us to look to the right of the bus:
See where the steam is coming out? We had a leak last week. That's the unit that had the leak. As of right now we don't even know if they have started that unit back up. It was put down for repairs. It was a pretty bad leak.
She also mentioned two flares since the strike started. According to news reports, one of those flares sent smoke and flame 200 to 300 feet in the air, terrifying local residents who feared both the toxic smoke and the possibility of a massive explosion.
USW District Director Matt Milsap said that this demonstrated why operating the refinery with management and undertrained contract employees is a bad idea: "At some point, it could well be disastrous. The flames are coming out higher and more often. The flare-ups are getting worse and more often."
After the passing the leaking unit, we saw a parking lot with a lot of cars in it. Parker explained: "This is the lot that the company is using to bring in contractors to do our jobs: the scab workers. They have two or three security guards there even though our picketlines have been peaceful."
A FEW minutes later we arrived at our picket assignment located at the intersection of two busy highways. The picket area featured two small sheds for shelter, a huge inflated Scabby the Rat, and an artfully constructed "rat trap" to "catch" scabs and rats.
While there are a number of scabs (non-union contractors), so far there have been no rats (union workers who cross the picket line). There was also a burn barrel to help ward off the 17-degree temperature. This was a "warm day" by comparison. It has dropped below zero several times during the course of the strike.
The striking workers had a diverse selection of picket signs to choose from, and we joined their picket. We struck up conversations and got to know one another. Judging by the number and variety of horns that were blown by passing vehicles, it's clear the strike has a lot of local support.
I asked Joe Porter, a metals mechanic about his job at the refinery:
It's different from day to day. We are a multi-craft trade. Some days it's replacing piping to the units that go with a piece of equipment. We tear equipment apart, fix it and put it together piece by piece. We do a lot of steam weatherization. Almost everything out here has to be heated up at a certain temperature, or it is going to freeze, so we use steam and electrical tracing to keep everything to the proper temperature. Out here frozen pipes could result in something very bad.
A refinery is a very complex operation to run and requires a diverse workforce. Joe Porter listed some of them: metal workers for pipefitting work, iron workers, workers who repair pumps and compressors, carpenters who build the scaffolding and who install and remove insulation, workers who deal with the electrical instrumentation as well as security workers.
Porter is deeply concerned about the maintenance at the refinery because of the inadequate number of refinery staff. Workers are forced to work long hours for as much as 30 days straight. The union wants to the company to hire more workers because, as Porter said, choosing his words carefully:
Everybody's human. People make mistakes. Especially when they are fatigued and tired. They're not going to make the best decisions...If we had more people who were rested and fresh, there would be less of a chance of something catastrophic happening.
Lack of proper safety maintenance at his job was on the mind of a McDonald's worker who came to picket in solidarity. He spoke about how the button on the fryer machine in his store did not work properly, causing a "huge electricity hazard." Grease drips out, which can lead to bad falls, and the company won't fix the problem.
According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), it is the younger more inexperienced workers in fast food who end up in the emergency room because of grease burns from fryers or falls due to slippery floors.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that fast-food workers are twice as likely to be physically attacked than workers at full-service chains. This includes murder and serious assaults. The workers most at risk are those who work the after midnight shifts. Like convenience stores, fast-food restaurants attract robbers looking for quick cash. The fast-food industry has not responded with adequate security.
Whether it is a sprawling oil refinery or a drive-up restaurant, global corporations like BP and McDonald's will always compromise on safety to squeeze out more profit.
Soon afterwards I was introduced to Leon Gamino, a retired BP electrician on the picket line. Gamino both repaired and installed equipment at the refinery until his retirement four years ago. Gamino also believes that the biggest issue in the strike is inadequate staffing, which he saw some of before he retired. Gamino elaborated by saying:
They are continuing to reduce manpower...But with fewer and fewer people and more and more overtime with less and less support, it's hard to get your job done. It almost gives me the feeling that management is trying to work up a case to basically say that you are incapable of doing your job and give them an excuse to bring in contractors.
Gamino continued by saying that one of the problems with contractors is that they do not have a vested interest in their jobs. This directly relates to the issues of safety:
If you are out here for a career, you are going to take safety seriously. You are going to do whatever you have to do to make sure you and your buddy are safe. But if you are a contractor here, you are here for one job, and you are gone...I've seen the company violate safety policies time and again with contractors. That's why they love them.
Gamino said that the industry wants to "dictate" safety procedures with no input from the union, meaning that workers would have nothing to say about it.
WOCC member Robert Wilson who was on the picket line in solidarity also spoke about the health and safety issues that are really at the center of this strike. Wilson said that the last thing workers need, when they already put so much into their jobs, is to be made disabled or seriously ill because of a poor safety environment.
I understand the importance of a safe workplace. There could be hazardous chemicals that could have long-term effects or cause serious injuries. Even when [workers] receive compensation for that, they may never make a full recovery...The safer the workplace, the more productive the workers can be. It's a win for both the employer and employee.
ON THE way back to the WOCC HQ in Chicago, I thought of the late Tony Mazzocchi, a legendary union official of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) before union mergers brought it into the United Steel Workers (USW).
I had the great fortune of meeting Tony Mazzocchi at a fundraising party when he ran for union president in the early 1980s. He lost narrowly but continued to hold other union offices.
Tony Mazzocchi was a socialist who believed strongly in social-justice unionism--that through labor solidarity among a very diverse American workforce, major social change is possible.
When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring showed how the new pesticides were killing birds and other creatures, Mazzocchi quickly realized the implications for the workers exposed to hazardous chemicals.
He formed alliances with the environmental movement, and his work was largely responsible for the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. But Mazzocchi knew that simply having a government agency for health and safety was inadequate.
He wanted strong union committees with real decision-making power in workplaces so that workers could become the eyes and ears for health and safety, not just for their own facilities, but for the communities around them and the nation as a whole.
The USW now has the Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education in Pittsburg to continue his legacy and share his vision of a just and fair society for the working class.
That oil workers in 2015 had to go on strike for the most basic health and safety issues, for a voice on the job and for simple respect shows how far we have to go before Mazzocchi's vision becomes a reality. That fast-food workers in 2015 have to organize and strike for a living wage, for the most basic union benefits, for a voice on the job and for simple respect also shows how far we have to go before Mazzocchi's vision becomes a reality.
But the solidarity shown between oil workers and fast-food workers on a cold Wednesday afternoon--two very different types of workers--shows that that the social-justice vision of Tony Mazzocchi, though not yet realized, is still very much alive.
"There is a dawn approaching that is indicating and shouting to us that it's our moment. But we've got to seize that moment and use what we know so well--how to organize and, fundamentally, how to fight!"
--Tony Mazzochi, 1926-2002