By HERMAN MORRIS
With about 500 oil refinery workers currently on strike at the Chevron plant in Richmond, Calif., there are questions that the strikers and the wider Richmond community have had to face in order to understand why it is important to support the strike. Questions include identifying who is to blame for the problems that the Chevron plant and the oil industry as a whole have brought to the Richmond community.
As happens with every strike, there is a “communications war” between the company—which is trying to discredit the strike and demoralize and demonize the workers—and the union. This “war” opens the door for the opportunity to address not only the needs of oil workers, but of the working-class community as a whole.
The gas price hikes are whose fault?
Anyone in the United States who is driving a car has felt the impact of high gas prices, which are rising as much as 22% in some areas of the country. Gasoline price rises are a product of the notoriously volatile petroleum market, which constantly attempts to maximize profits through manuevers like withholding supply from consumers, as well as blatant price gouging. At present, the market is further roiled by factors such as supply-chain constrictions, effects of the pandemic, and repercussions from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And yet, some have blamed the striking plant workers for exacerbating the problem by demanding higher wages in an economy that is already experiencing some of the highest rates of inflation in decades.
If times are so “tough” for the oil companies, then let’s look at Chevron’s reported earnings for 2021. In 2021, Chevron posted a profit of 15.6 billion dollars, the highest seen since 2014. In the midst of this, Chevron is offering a measly 2.5% wage increase to workers at the plant for the year, well below the rate of inflation of 2021 at 7% and what is shaping to be an even higher inflation rate in 2022.
So, there appears to be a “contradiction” here! Chevron is posting record profits due to leveraging the heightened demand for gas, and yet it says that it also needs to tighten its belt against the workers, who want to be able to make enough money to be able to keep up with an economy that is inflating faster than their wages can keep pace with. The fact is that there would be no need at all for gas prices to go up more if wages were raised; Chevron would just have to keep itself happy with a smaller piece of its already extraordinarily large profits.
Environmental damage at the Chevron plant is whose fault?
The Chevron plant is the largest single emitter of highly toxic chemicals, particulate matter, and greenhouse gases in the northern Bay Area. It has brought numerous environmental issues to the surrounding community, which experiences some of the highest rates of asthma, cancer, and heart disease in the region. Air pollution from the plant extends as far as California’s Central Valley (see: https://www.fractracker.org/2016/04/air-pollution-refinery-corridor/).
In addition, major fires took place at the refinery in 1989, 1999, and 2012. There is a reflexive impulse to blame the workers for their complicity and support for the company during all these incidents, but that is a complete inversion of the reality. The workers of the Chevron plant in Richmond are on the front lines in countering the environmental impacts of the plant, bearing the responsibility of preventing these incidents, and risking their livelihoods. These efforts are often in direct competition with the company’s efforts to keep the plant at the highest level of productivity possible.
Since the strike, Chevron has cut specialized protocol workers and instead shifted all its work onto the plant trainers. In addition, the only joint union-employer safety investigation board has been dissolved by the company. As workers on the front lines of environmental and chemical danger, the Chevron workers have a right and a need to defend their community against Chevron’s cavalier attitude to safety regulations.
It should be stated that the issue of safety (and, connected to it, the issue of environmental pollution) is closely connected to the core demands being raised by the Chevron strikers. Working 70 hours a week in an extremely dangerous work environment like an oil refinery inevitably tends to increase the risk of accidents. Thus, by fighting for a shortened work week, workers at the Chevron refinery are fighting not only for the safety of their union brothers and sisters but for the protection of the broader community in Richmond and the Bay Area, as well. They are also those who can better ensure the transition to safe and clean energy.
Build support for the Richmond Chevron strike!
As socialists, we stand with workers asserting their right to fight back against their exploitation by capitalist interests, and want to dispel some of these misconceptions about who is to blame for the wider problems that the oil industry has inflicted on Richmond. We believe it is very important to deliver a real victory for the Richmond workers: When workers in a sector or local win, they raise the bar for other workers to raise their wages and standards of living. This is why it is very important to mobilize the active solidarity of local unions, and to support other oil workers who might want to join them in spreading the strike.
We are living in a period in which the strike weapon is becoming popular again, and so is a new vision of unionism—class-struggle unionism. Class-struggle unionism relies on the active mobilization and involvement of the rank and file to build the necessary power to defeat the bosses, as well as on national and international solidarity. Strike action can unleash significantly more power than “table bargaining” and “rational arguments” made to management, and this is why U.S. workers are resorting again to strikes.