In 3,800-Worker Strike, the Ghost of Tony Mazzocchi Still Haunts Big Oil

Steve Early

Union labor leader Tony Mazzocchi fought on the behalf of workers' rights during his career.

Twelve years ago, America’s lead­ing advo­cate of occu­pa­tion­al health and envi­ron­men­tal safe­ty suc­cumbed to pan­cre­at­ic cancer.

In the U.S., where the influ­ence of orga­nized labor has long been con­tract­ing, the death of a for­mer trade union offi­cial is often lit­tle not­ed. Yet Tony Maz­zoc­chi was no ordi­nary labor leader. His pass­ing from the scene, at age 76, was wide­ly rec­og­nized and cor­rect­ly mourned as a great loss for the entire union movement.

As a top strate­gist for the Oil, Chem­i­cal and Atom­ic Work­ers (OCAW), Maz­zoc­chi pio­neered alliances between work­ers con­cerned about job safe­ty and health haz­ards and com­mu­ni­ties exposed to indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion gen­er­at­ed by com­pa­nies like Shell, Chevron, and Mobil.

In 1973, mem­bers of the OCAW (who are now part of the Unit­ed Steel Work­ers) con­duct­ed a nation­al con­tract cam­paign and four-month strike at Shell Oil over work­place safe­ty rights and pro­tec­tions. As Mazzocchi’s biog­ra­ph­er, Les Leopold notes, the strike helped build a stronger anti-cor­po­rate move­ment” because OCAW mem­bers learned that you can’t win these fights alone.” To win — or even just bat­tle Big Oil to a draw — work­ers had to join forces with the very same envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions long demo­nized by the indus­try as the ene­my of labor and man­age­ment alike.

Strik­ing Big Oil Again

Four decades lat­er, echoes of that strug­gle could be heard on the refin­ery town pick­et-lines that went up in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, Ken­tucky, and Wash­ing­ton state this week. Thou­sands of oil work­ers walked out, for the first time in 35 years, over issues and demands that Tony Maz­zoc­chi helped pub­li­cize and build coali­tions around for much of his career.

About 30,000 refin­ery employ­ees are still cov­ered by the USW agree­ment that expired last week­end. Near­ly 4,000 of them are on strike at nine plants already, includ­ing Tesoro refiner­ies in Mar­tinez and Car­son, CA. Oth­er USW mem­bers, includ­ing those employed at Chevron in Rich­mond, may join the walk­out if indus­try nego­tia­tors fail to address non-wage issues sum­ma­rized by USWA vice-pres­i­dent Gary Beev­ers as follows:

Oner­ous over­time, unsafe staffing lev­els, dan­ger­ous con­di­tions the indus­try con­tin­ues to ignore; the dai­ly occur­rences of fires, emis­sions, leaks and explo­sions that threat­en local com­mu­ni­ties with­out the indus­try doing much about it and the fla­grant con­tract­ing out that impacts health and safe­ty on the job.”

In the best Maz­zoc­chi tra­di­tion, that list of union con­cerns will cer­tain­ly res­onate among my Rich­mond neigh­bors, who saw Chevron’s huge refin­ery here erupt in a major explo­sion and fire sev­er­al years ago and often com­plain about the bad air qual­i­ty result­ing from its emissions.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, too many peo­ple in this com­mu­ni­ty equate Chevron’s union­ized work­force with the AFL-CIO build­ing trades orga­ni­za­tions that reg­u­lar­ly mobi­lize their mem­bers to sup­port the company’s own ques­tion­able envi­ron­men­tal agen­da. Just last fall, those unions, which rep­re­sent work­ers employed by Chevron con­trac­tors, joined Chevron in a $3.1 mil­lion cam­paign to defeat pro­gres­sive can­di­dates for Rich­mond city coun­cil and may­or. All of these out­spo­ken crit­ics of the company’s work­place safe­ty and envi­ron­men­tal record were elect­ed or re-elect­ed any­way, after a strong grass­roots cam­paign by the Rich­mond Pro­gres­sive Alliance (RPA).

CSB Find­ings Val­i­date The Union

As recent­ly as Jan­u­ary 28, the U.S. Chem­i­cal Safe­ty Board was back in our city hall cham­bers releas­ing its final find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions on Chevron’s 2012 refin­ery acci­dent. The CSB again fault­ed lax main­te­nance prac­tices for “ the cat­a­stroph­ic pipe rup­ture,” hydro­car­bon release, and result­ing vapor cloud that engulfed nine­teen employ­ees, near­ly killing them. Fall-out from the accom­pa­ny­ing forced 15,000 res­i­dents of Rich­mond and neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties to seek med­ical atten­tion; the city is now suing Chevron for mil­lions of dol­lars in com­pen­sa­tion for oth­er loss­es, includ­ing dam­age to local prop­er­ty values.

In its final report, the CSB crit­i­cized a Chevron safe­ty cul­ture” that encour­aged con­tin­ued oper­a­tion of a unit despite haz­ardous leaks” and dis­cour­aged its union­ized employ­ees from assert­ing their con­tract safe­ty rights. The CSB’s lead inves­ti­ga­tor, Don Holm­strom, cit­ed evi­dence of increased reluc­tance” among Chevron refin­ery oper­a­tors to use their stop work’ author­i­ty despite being con­cerned about the results of main­te­nance deficiencies.”

On Jan­u­ary 28, the company’s usu­al build­ing trades cheer­ing squad was con­spic­u­ous­ly absent. Instead, mem­bers of USWA Local 5 turned out in force, wear­ing union jack­ets and hold­ing signs pub­li­ciz­ing their key bar­gain­ing demands, which over­lap with the CSB’s own rec­om­men­da­tions and pro­pos­als (none of which are bind­ing on Chevron).

Local 5 mem­ber Jim Payne applaud­ed the CSB and wel­comed its back­ing for stronger stop work” author­i­ty in sit­u­a­tions of immi­nent dan­ger. For­mer Rich­mond may­or and now city coun­cil mem­ber Gayle McLaugh­lin backed Local 5 all the way. I sup­port the calls for work­ers’ right to shut down oper­a­tions when they feel it’s unsafe,” she told the CSB on Jan. 28 – just three months after Chevron and its build­ing trades allies failed, once again, to dri­ve her from office.

Divide and Con­quer No More?

In a mes­sage to USW mem­bers and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ers this week, Local 5 pres­i­dent BK White sound­ed like an RPA mem­ber him­self. Chevron for years has attempt­ed to rule the Rich­mond refin­ery through fear mon­ger­ing,” he assert­ed. The city’s pro­gres­sive element…has been paint­ed in a bad light for their work of attempt­ing to fight for local residents.”

The com­pa­ny has attempt­ed to quell the voic­es of work­ers with the fear of the refinery’s clos­ing, whether it is from reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies or com­mu­ni­ty activists, White said. This is a failed attempt to weak­en the union and intim­i­date our rank-and-file from rock­ing the boat or fight­ing for their rights…To under­es­ti­mate our resolve, would be a grave miscalculation.”

Union-ori­ent­ed envi­ron­men­tal activists, local­ly and nation­al­ly, are respond­ing in kind. The Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty is call­ing for USWA pick­et line sup­port and oth­er forms of solidarity.

Like Tony Maz­zoc­chi long ago, its nation­al coor­di­na­tor, Joe Uehlein stress­es the impor­tance of link­ing up with refin­ery work­ers because they are on the front­lines of pro­tect­ing our com­mu­ni­ties against the envi­ron­men­tal haz­ards of the oil indus­try.” Accord­ing to Uehlein, man­age­ment is cre­at­ing con­di­tions that make it impos­si­ble for refin­ery work­ers to pro­tect us,” even though their shop-floor skill and expe­ri­ence is crit­i­cal for pre­vent­ing dev­as­tat­ing explo­sions, spills, and releases.”

As part of its own out­reach to com­mu­ni­ty allies, the USW is mak­ing the case for oil indus­try safe­ty reform in a com­pelling video enti­tled Still Out of Con­trol. The prob­lems of under­staffing, manda­to­ry over­time, work­er fatigue, lack of refin­ery main­te­nance, and too much con­tract­ing out are all well-doc­u­ment­ed in this short film, a sequel to one made by the OCAW years ago.

There are many oth­er indus­tries in Amer­i­ca that put pro­duc­tion and prof­its before safe­ty but few with deep­er pock­ets or greater envi­ron­men­tal impact than Big Oil. So what bet­ter place to make blue-green alliance build­ing more real than rhetor­i­cal, among labor and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners long pit­ted against each oth­er by com­pa­nies like Chevron and Shell?

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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