Tuesday, February 3, 2015

USW oil refinery strike: Strike them all, generalize the struggle

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

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.

But that time has passed.  There is no room for maneuver in today’s climate as globalization and increased competition forces the US ruling class and the corporations to place US workers on rations, to drive us back to conditions that existed prior to the rise of the CIO. 

After thousands of disputes and numerous defeated strikes, the bosses have learned that there is nothing to fear from the heads of organized labor.  Concessionary contracts have been forced down the throats of union members in the public and private sector alike.  Boeing was one of the latest examples as when workers rejected a concessionary contract, the International leadership steps in and ensures the contract is accepted, the same with the ILWU, SEIU---all of them.  The only fear is that the ranks might rise up and cast off the class collaborationist leadership and this has been delayed longer than this writer thought.

The USW strike is around issues like fatigue, overtime, unsafe and low staffing levels. In the last couple of days leaders of the USW have talked of unsafe conditions that threaten to harm communities where refineries are situated. “…. contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job; and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire”, says Gary Beavers,  head of the USWA’s oil bargaining unit.

These are issues that have plagued us for decades.  We have seen the decline in wages, benefits and working conditions over an extended period and the tragic loss of conditions that took decades to win through heroic struggle, has been made all the easier through the cooperation of the trade union leadership at the highest levels. This cooperation goes as far as joining with the boss in firing militant rank and file leaders as was the case some years ago with the UAW leadership and Five members of the UAW Local 3520’s bargaining committee at Freightliner LLC, a truck manufacturing plant in Cleveland NC.

The USW leadership have taken the decision at this point to only target 9 plants:

LyondellBasell in Houston, TX;
Marathon Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, TX;
Marathon Houston Green Cogeneration facility, Texas City, TX;
Marathon Refinery, Catlettsburg, Ky;
Shell Deer Park Refinery, Deer Park, TX;
Shell Deer Park Chemical Plant, Deer Park, TX;
Tesoro Anacortes Refinery, Anacortes, Wash.;
Tesoro Martinez Refinery, Martinez, Calif.; and
Tesoro Carson Refinery, Carson, Calif.

We only have to consider this strategy in the USW case here to see that the leadership is unwilling lead a real fight.  

According to the USW’s official site, “The remaining USW-represented refineries and oil facilities are operating under a rolling 24-hour contract extension.”   

“When the industry comes to its senses, we are more than willing to meet them at the bargaining table and negotiate a fair pattern agreement that will help everyone,” says Tim Conway, the USW’s VP of administration. 

Here is further evidence that reveal that the USW leadership is not willing to bring the might of these organized workers to the table, are not in the least interested in spreading the strike and generalizing the struggle.  Anyone with an iota of sense or political savvy knows that the bosses are not fair and that “everyone” can’t be happy. The union hierarchy, afraid of losing their social positions as union members decline, plead with the bosses to be fair, to be nice and return to the good old days of the Post War Boom (1950-72)

David Campbell, a USW rep in southern California makes the usual threats warning the energy company bosses that, “If they don’t get serious about the issues we will up the ante.”.  The bosses have heard all this before, they’re not afraid of the union hierarchy who have served their interests so well to the point that they don't need them anymore, or so they believe.  The USW represents workers at 65 U.S. refineries that produce approximately 64 percent of the oil in the U.S. according to the union.  This is real power, or potential power if used. Given the extreme aggression we have seen from the bosses over the past period why would you only strike nine of them?

The reason of course is that the union officials are terrified of a serious confrontation between their members and the state that a wider strike will bring and where it might lead. This is a crucial industry. The US government would declare a state of emergency, file injunctions to get the folks back to work and will certainly play the terrorism card.  Even more fearsome is if the members rise to the occasion and begin to take a hold of the reins and with that reach out to the rest of the working class and the communities in which we live and work. A wider struggle will draw in to the struggle and the streets, all the youth, disenfranchised and other oppressed sections of society. It will not take much to release the anger beneath the surface of US society and transform it in to an organized resistance after decades of declining living standards, a Great Recession, crumbling infrastructure, lost jobs and homes, permanent wars, racism and the militarization of the state security forces. 

The US 1% is very aware of this and the inequality that has arisen which is why bourgeois politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Robert Reich are addressing the issue and the super rich are ensuring they have an escape hatch in the event of social unrest.

I’ll go out on a limb here and state that we are in for another defeat that the union hierarchy, the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition will call a victory. It's obvious if we look at what the head of the USW Leo Gerard says about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement currently being negotiated. The TPP is an initiative involving 12 countries so far aimed at increasing opportunities for capital investment and profit making. It is a very secretive process. Here are some of Gerard’s comments on the TPP

He compliments Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan who says the TPP, “must include to successfully promote America’s interests.”

“For example, our trading partners must establish effective disciplines against currency manipulation. In addition, Congress must also pass domestic legislation to address this issue. Currency manipulation robs American farmers, workers and businesses of opportunity.

“Right now, U.S. negotiators are rushing to conclude a deal. Arbitrary deadlines will only diminish American opportunity by giving our trading partners the upper hand. They can sit on their hands knowing that U.S. negotiators are watching the clock, looking to conclude an agreement with less than adequate results for American workers and their families.

This is the Team Concept in the global trading arena.  Gerard sees his interests, and therefore his members and all workers, as identical to the representatives of the corporations who are discussing trade with their foreign counterparts.  For Gerard, Warren Buffet’s America and Joe Six Pack's America are identical. Apparently he once returned to college to get a degree in economics and political science. He would have learned more had he got a job at a refinery.

According to the media, “Gerard has adopted a global perspective on unionization. Beginning in 2003, he has signed strategical alliances pledging mutual support on workers' rights, organizing, and collective bargaining.”

But this cannot work. “Everyone” can’t win when it comes to the class struggle, the struggle between working people and capitalists over the share of the wealth only workers produce. How can you build international solidarity among workers as Gerard suggests with his "global perspective on unionization" when at the same time you are joining with your nation's bosses in their competition with their international rivals for global market share and profits?

These are all the tell tale signs that any concerned worker should take in to account when disputes such as the recent USW strike takes place.  Why belong to a national organization like the AFL-CIO when we allow individual unions to face the might of global corporations and the media, state and police forces alone?  There is nothing we see in this example that can turn this tide.

The USW members are resisting what union members have been resisting all along.  We saw it at Boeing.  I hear all the time from workers I discuss with who are disgusted with their union (leadership) that yes they are angry but they don’t want to “make waves” “ruffle feathers” “rock the boat”.  But, as the saying goes, you have to crack a few eggs if you want to make an omelet. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the bosses, but the bosses shouldn’t underestimate ours either and they are inclined to after years of easy pickings.  We have the numbers; we do the work. A major victory for any union would inspire millions of workers in this country.  And let’s not forget, only 10% of French workers were organized in unions at the time of the 1968 National General Strike and 10 million occupied the factories and workplaces.

I'll end this commentary with the blunt truth:

It is the bosses that are waging and winning the class war.

It is the union officialdom and leaders of workers organizations everywhere that are helping them win it. 

We cannot avoid ruffling feathers if we want to avoid a life of poverty and the loss of our democratic rights. The USW leadership is afraid that an all out strike could ignite a generalized movement against the 1% as the anger rises to the surface. We should not be, we should welcome such a development. In the words of George W Bush, "Bring it on".

Note: this entry was edited on 2-5-15 at 7.57 am


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Mike said...
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