Climate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shuttered Refinery in Philly Shows Why.

Mindy Isser January 10, 2020

Photo taken on June 21, 2019 shows the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery after the fire in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the United States. (Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images)

In the ear­ly morn­ing hours of June 21, 2019, a cat­a­stroph­ic explo­sion tore through the Philadel­phia Ener­gy Solu­tions (PES) oil refin­ery in the south­west sec­tion of Philadel­phia. The train­ing and quick think­ing of refin­ery work­ers, mem­bers of Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Local 10 – 1, avert­ed cer­tain dis­as­ter and saved mil­lions of lives. One month lat­er, on July 21, PES declared bank­rupt­cy — their sec­ond in as many years — and began to close down the refin­ery in the fol­low­ing months, lay­ing off almost 2,000 peo­ple with no mean­ing­ful sev­er­ance. Accord­ing to work­ers who spoke with In These Times, the refin­ery stopped run­ning crude oil in ear­ly August, although there are few­er than 100 work­ers who were kept on as care­tak­ers for the waste water and steam gen­er­at­ing units.

The fire on June 21 and the mass lay­offs that fol­lowed impact­ed more than just the phys­i­cal site of the refin­ery and the work­ers who made it run. It also ignit­ed a debate through­out the city about what would become of the refin­ery site, which has been in oper­a­tion for more than 150 years. On the one hand, the explo­sion under­scored the dan­gers the refin­ery posed to the com­mu­ni­ty imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ing it, and the city as a whole. On the oth­er, the sub­se­quent clo­sure of the refin­ery meant that work­ers were sud­den­ly out of work, with no plan from PES or city offi­cials of how to put them back to work.

This debate, while focused on Philadel­phia, reflects much larg­er ques­tions roil­ing sup­port­ers of a Green New Deal: how to ensure a just tran­si­tion for fos­sil fuel work­ers who lose their jobs, and how to build bonds between unions look­ing out for their mem­bers, and cli­mate orga­niz­ers try­ing to stop fos­sil fuel extrac­tion. Inter­views with com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers try­ing to curb the refinery’s tox­ic pol­lu­tion, and work­ers laid off from the refin­ery, indi­cate that the answers are not easy, but require lis­ten­ing to work­ers, many of whom are already think­ing about cli­mate change — and forced, right now, to deal with the hard­ships of los­ing their jobs. In the words of Jim, a for­mer work­er who request­ed only his first name be used due to fear of retal­i­a­tion, Fos­sil fuels need to be phased out aggres­sive­ly. That being said, I’m in the indus­try. You can’t just allow the peo­ple in that indus­try to become like the coal min­ers, just floundering.”

A tox­ic polluter

Such ques­tions have been the focus of ongo­ing orga­niz­ing by com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who have long been con­cerned about the health impacts the refin­ery has on the soil, water and air. The refin­ery is in the 19145 zip code, which has one of the high­est rates of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for asth­ma in the city, along with one of the high­est can­cer mor­tal­i­ty rates, in a city that has the high­est can­cer rate of any large city in the Unit­ed States,” accord­ing to the Nation­al Can­cer Institute. 

The con­nec­tion between ill­ness­es and the refin­ery is not lost on com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, nor on Philly Thrive, an orga­ni­za­tion found­ed in 2015 to win a just tran­si­tion of the Philadel­phia Ener­gy Solu­tions oil refin­ery, the largest and old­est oil refin­ery on the East Coast.” The orga­ni­za­tion knocked on doors around the refin­ery and embarked on a lis­ten­ing project” in order to bet­ter under­stand the expe­ri­ences of neigh­bors, most of whom are Black and low-income. Alexa Ross, co-founder of Philly Thrive, says that the orga­ni­za­tion exists out­side of the non-prof­it, white, mid­dle class” envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, and is cur­rent­ly focused sole­ly on its Right to Breathe” cam­paign, which is orga­niz­ing around health and safe­ty over prof­it, no fos­sil fuel expan­sion, and a green econ­o­my for all.

After hear­ing count­less hor­ror sto­ries from neigh­bors about asth­ma, bron­chi­tis, can­cer and ear­ly deaths, Philly Thrive was unable to ignore the urgency of the cri­sis. Ross told In These Times that you can com­pare the refin­ery to the next 100 sources of pol­lu­tion all togeth­er, and the refin­ery is still the major­i­ty of tox­ic emis­sions.” The refin­ery was the num­ber one source of air pol­lu­tion in Philadel­phia, respon­si­ble for 9% of the city’s fine par­ti­cle emis­sions and 20% of green­house gas emis­sions, accord­ing to the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health. It was also the sin­gle largest emit­ter of tox­ic pol­lu­tants, includ­ing known car­cino­gens, rep­re­sent­ing near­ly 57% of such emis­sions in 2016.

A lack of trust

And although Philly Thrive also lists a com­mit­ment to a just tran­si­tion to clean ener­gy and liv­ing wage green jobs” on its web­site, it also pub­licly acknowl­edges that it has been very dif­fi­cult to carve out sub­stan­tial time in our orga­niz­ing” to build rela­tion­ships with work­ers at the refin­ery. Ross says Thrive was told by our con­nec­tions to USW that they want­ed noth­ing to do with us if we were anti-fos­sil fuel. We’re one of the only envi­ron­men­tal groups that hasn’t been invit­ed to the table with labor, because we don’t think we can afford to say any­thing besides that we need to tran­si­tion from fos­sil fuels now. So we’ve been denied access to the labor move­ment and USW in particular.” 

This lack of trust between com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and refin­ery work­ers has been painful for both groups, and the chal­lenges they’ve encoun­tered con­nect­ing these two dis­tinct, but ulti­mate­ly con­nect­ed, strug­gles have been dif­fi­cult to tran­scend. Philly Thrive says that at pub­lic meet­ings about the future of the refin­ery, fear, anger and grief have found like­ly tar­gets in each oth­er instead of the com­pa­nies and exec­u­tives respon­si­ble for the refinery.”

One for­mer refin­ery work­er even took to Twit­ter short­ly after the explo­sion to slam Philly Thrive. Jim Sav­age, for­mer Pres­i­dent of USW Local 10 – 1, the union that rep­re­sent­ed work­ers at the refin­ery, wrote that hyp­o­crit­i­cal oppor­tunists ran to micro­phones, with fires still burn­ing out of con­trol, call­ing for the imme­di­ate shut­down of the refin­ery with an oh, by the way, take care of the work­ers by doing x, y, and z.’ Work­ers that they did­n’t both­er to speak with first. A week lat­er, they’re still doing it and still no con­ver­sa­tion with the work­ers. Obvi­ous­ly, they pre­fer the flow­ery words of sol­i­dar­i­ty with­out any actu­al effort to cre­ate solidarity.”

Jim, the refin­ery work­er men­tioned ear­li­er, says that work­ers saw Philly Thrive as advo­cat­ing for a total shut­down, no indus­tri­al use, which to peo­ple who work there is very scary. We talked about some tran­si­tion with some relief for the work­ers and this wouldn’t fit that bill.” When pressed about what a tran­si­tion with relief for work­ers would look like, he said that it would include med­ical [insur­ance] while we are laid off with school­ing or train­ing includ­ed… A sev­er­ance would have helped. This is just me though. A lot of work­ers wouldn’t agree but I think a sub­stan­tial amount would. Some won’t be hap­py with any­thing less than their refin­ery jobs back.”

And it’s not hard to under­stand why. The PES refin­ery pro­vid­ed around 1,100 full-time jobs and as many as 850 con­tract­ed posi­tions to work­ers large­ly in the Philadel­phia area. Most of the work­ers I spoke with only had high school degrees, and end­ed up mak­ing at least $100,000 per year, often clos­er to $150,000 or $200,000 with over­time and bonus­es, thanks to their strong union and the dan­ger­ous nature of their work.

B.N., who request­ed only his ini­tials be used due to fear of retal­i­a­tion, worked at the refin­ery since 2006 and is now a facil­i­ties man­ag­er at a uni­ver­si­ty, mak­ing about half the mon­ey he pre­vi­ous­ly made. He says it’s much safer, but I do miss the mon­ey, and it’s very hard to go back­wards.” He says that for his old cowork­ers, the job search is bru­tal,” with peo­ple get­ting offered jobs that pay $17 an hour. Some haven’t found any­thing at all and are still rely­ing on unem­ploy­ment. Oth­ers have moved to Texas, Arkansas, or Louisiana, chas­ing refin­ery jobs on the Gulf Coast, leav­ing their fam­i­lies behind.

When faced with the option of either keep­ing well-pay­ing jobs or putting what may feel like blind faith into hypo­thet­i­cal plans for a tran­si­tion of the site in the spir­it of the Green New Deal, it’s not hard to under­stand why refin­ery work­ers have fought to keep the refin­ery open — espe­cial­ly when they are not includ­ed in the dis­cus­sions around what a tran­si­tion could or should look like. The chal­lenges fac­ing com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and work­ers in Philadel­phia over the future of the for­mer PES refin­ery site are not unique, but rather, indica­tive of a wider gap that must be bridged in order to even­tu­al­ly win a Green New Deal.

The labor move­ment and cli­mate move­ment have often been paint­ed as unlike­ly allies, locked in a nat­ur­al and con­sis­tent con­flict. Although some unions have begun to embrace the need to move away from fos­sil fuels and seri­ous­ly con­front cli­mate change, many unions have dug their heels in and reaf­firmed their com­mit­ment to extrac­tive indus­tries, such as Labor­ers’ Inter­na­tion­al Union of North Amer­i­ca, Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers and Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. The AFL-CIO infa­mous­ly came out in sup­port of build­ing oil pipelines in the face of mas­sive protests by Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in the Dakotas.

While there’s a lot of talk of a just tran­si­tion” away from fos­sil fuels — both in Philadel­phia around the refin­ery, and beyond — we don’t have any exam­ples in this coun­try to mod­el this tran­si­tion after yet. It makes sense that a union whose mem­bers work in the fos­sil fuel indus­try would see its inter­ests as tied to the fate of that indus­try, espe­cial­ly giv­en the ten­den­cy of many unions to see their role as fight­ing sole­ly for the inter­ests of their mem­bers, divorced from the inter­ests of the work­ing class as a whole.

A com­mon enemy

It’s clear that a basis for a high­er lev­el of sol­i­dar­i­ty must be found to over­come this divi­sion. One poten­tial way to do this is to iden­ti­fy a com­mon ene­my, one who is respon­si­ble for both exploit­ing and endan­ger­ing the safe­ty of the work­ers in these often dan­ger­ous indus­tries, and for the dev­as­ta­tion these indus­tries have on the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties. This com­mon ene­my is, of course, the boss, who is often aid­ed by tax breaks and polit­i­cal sup­port from local and state governments. 

The Com­mon­wealth of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­vid­ed PES with $25 mil­lion for refin­ery equip­ment upgrades and rail car infra­struc­ture in 2012, along with numer­ous oth­er tax incen­tives and write-offs. PES was also grant­ed pro­tec­tion by the state for lia­bil­i­ty relat­ed to his­tor­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion at the site, or con­t­a­m­i­na­tion result­ing from Sunoco’s (the pre­vi­ous own­er) oper­a­tions. Fol­low­ing the June 21 explo­sion and sub­se­quent bank­rupt­cy fil­ing, PES exec­u­tives were paid $4.59 mil­lion in reten­tion bonus­es. In a Novem­ber 22nd fil­ing with the U.S. Bank­rupt­cy Court, PES request­ed to cre­ate an addi­tion­al bonus pool to pay­out exec­u­tives, rang­ing from $2.5 mil­lion to $20 mil­lion if the sale of the refin­ery gen­er­ates $1 bil­lion in net pro­ceeds. Philadel­phia Ener­gy Indus­tries, cre­at­ed by for­mer PES chief exec­u­tive Phil Rinal­di and S.G. Pre­ston, a bio­fu­els com­pa­ny, have put in a bid to pur­chase the refin­ery in order to reopen it. Rinal­di left PES in 2017, but oth­er exec­u­tives with whom he had worked close­ly for years were the ones who closed the refin­ery, filed for bank­rupt­cy, and received mas­sive pay­outs for them­selves. And in the after­math of the dev­as­ta­tion caused to the lives of refin­ery work­ers and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty, Rinal­di has cyn­i­cal­ly emerged as a key fig­ure call­ing to restart oper­a­tions at the shut­tered refin­ery site. 

Even though USW Local 10 – 1 Pres­i­dent Ryan O’Callaghan has pub­licly bashed the exec­u­tives for their lav­ish pay­outs, he also said, The idea of retrain­ing us for jobs that don’t exist is not the answer. The idea to put a solar pan­el farm on the site is not the answer. The answer is to restart the refin­ery now.” So even though union mem­bers were sold out by the own­ers of PES — who took giant pay­outs while leav­ing them with noth­ing — the union is indi­rect­ly ally­ing with them to work to re-open the refinery. 

But is it real­ly about the refin­ery, or is it about good jobs? B.N. said that If it was a solar or a wind farm, and they were pay­ing what the refin­ery paid, [the work­ers] would be there in a sec­ond. It’s about the mon­ey. They’re not defend­ing the indus­try — they’re defend­ing their job and their pay­check. If they could make the same mon­ey work­ing for Green­peace, they would do it.” When the only option is to either defend the fos­sil fuel indus­try or have a poor­ly pay­ing, inse­cure job, the vast major­i­ty of work­ers are going to defend the indus­try — no mat­ter their per­son­al beliefs about cli­mate change.

On Jan­u­ary 17, the site will be put to auc­tion, with mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies lin­ing up to re-open the refin­ery. Res­i­dents and com­mu­ni­ty groups like Philly Thrive don’t have a seat at the table in dis­cus­sions about the refinery’s future, but USW does because it is a cred­i­tor in the refinery’s bank­rupt­cy case. What would it be like if the union chose to part­ner with Philly Thrive instead of with the 1%, and signed on to their demands of health and safe­ty over prof­it, no fos­sil fuel expan­sion, and a green econ­o­my for all? The union could stand with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and com­mit to shut­ting down the refin­ery, for both the safe­ty of the work­ers, the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty, and our hope for any kind of fos­sil fuel-free future — but only if there is a plan for sev­er­ance pay and health insur­ance for work­ers, along with train­ing and job place­ments at either the old refin­ery site or elsewhere.

The peo­ple most affect­ed by cli­mate change will be in the work­ing class, whether they’re mem­bers of USW Local 10 – 1, mem­bers of anoth­er union, or not union mem­bers at all. The Phil Rinald­is of the world, by con­trast, will be much more insu­lat­ed from cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. This is a press­ing chal­lenge to both the labor and cli­mate move­ment, giv­en the par­tic­u­lar urgency for dras­tic action to address the impacts of cli­mate change before it’s too late. How can the labor move­ment move towards act­ing in the inter­ests of their mem­bers, yes, but increas­ing­ly in the inter­ests of work­ers as a whole? And how can the cli­mate move­ment engage labor to help make the Green New Deal a more con­crete pro­gram that work­ers can believe in? In order to ful­ly con­front the com­plex­i­ties of how to actu­al­ly have a just tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuels, work­ers in those indus­tries need to be at the front of those conversations. 

As B.N. puts it, We’ve done a lot of great things in this coun­try. We can tran­si­tion. Look at World War II, GM stopped mak­ing cars for com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion — they start­ed devot­ing all of their efforts to the war. We can do big things in this country.”

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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