United States: Climate activists should back historic oil worker strike

February 20, 2015

The largest US refinery workers strike since 1980 entered its third week, TeleSUR English said on February 18, with union and oil company representatives set to renew face-to-face talks over pay and safety after a week-long hiatus.

The article said: “The United Steelworkers Union (USW) is seeking a three-year, industry-wide pact that would protect 30,000 workers at 63 U.S. refineries, covering up to two-thirds of the country's domestic oil producing capacity.

“The union's lead negotiator, International Vice President Gary Beevers told Reuters that safe staffing levels at refineries and chemical plants remain the union’s principal concerns. Workers are also looking to establish wage increases …

“More than 5,000 workers at 11 plants, including nine refineries accounting have remained on strike. The nine refineries represent 13 percent of US production capacity.”

Below, Ragina Johnson says the climate justice movement must see the oil workers on strike at refineries and other facilities as their allies. It is abridged from Socialist Worker (US).


The striking oil workers are fighting energy giants who put their multibillion-dollar profits ahead of the health and safety of their employees and the surrounding communities, whom they treat as disposable.

The strike comes amid a growing climate justice movement — a movement that is also challenging the fossil fuel industry. These corporations are poisoning our drinking water, filling our soil with toxic waste, and polluting the air we breathe.

Tesoro, Shell, Chevron, Exxon and other oil affiliates have blood on their hands. The most recent examples are the explosions on trains transporting crude oil through towns and cities — trains that eventually bring crude oil to these refineries.

The very plants where workers are squaring off with their bosses — in Anacortes, Washington, and Richmond, California, for example — have been the sites of explosions and fires that killed workers and exposed communities to deadly toxic chemicals.

At the extraction end, this industry sucks vital natural resources from the ground — specifically on Native lands, violating treaty rights of First Nations or surrounding working-class communities and farms — as it increases carbon dioxide emissions that are burning up our planet.

Thus, some activists in the climate justice movement have asked why they should support workers in an industry that is the root cause of all these ills.

While groups like 350.org, the Sierra Club and others have called on their members to support the strikers, some radicals are asking whether they should call for the destruction of the industry instead, and move ahead with the transition to renewable energy facilities like wind, solar and thermal.

Can we be in solidarity with the workers, they ask, given their demands don't talk outright about climate change, global warming and the need to get rid of an industry that currently puts food on their tables?

The answer should be yes to all these questions. We should be in active solidarity and support the strike if we ever hope to have a real transition away from fossil fuels. Our enemies are the corporations endangering all our lives, not the workers.

If the workers win their demands, it will be a victory against the same corporate power the climate movement is also fighting — and we need to show the workers our solidarity.

It is on the picket lines, listening to and supporting the workers, where we can create the basis for a much larger discussion on how to break down the false division that we have to choose between jobs and feeding our families, and whether the planet burns or we die early from pollution.

We can also start to have a discussion and learn from the very people who have the ability and agency to concretely take up the demand of the movement — transitioning away from fossil fuels.

We are kidding ourselves in the climate justice movement if we think we can win this simply by blockading trains and pipelines. The oil giants will continue to go around us, unless we confront them with a more central force in the industry.

We are up against a mighty giant — really, the whole capitalist system. Fossil fuels are a central foundation to the whole of society, from transportation of goods to people, to packaging and production of commodities.

We have to build our own giant. We have many of the ingredients we need to build a more powerful movement — from indigenous activists and coalitions, to students, to community groups and people of color fighting environmental racism. Now we have the missing vital element — a collective of workers out on strike in the very industry we are all fighting against.

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