For nearly a month workers at refineries across the country have been on strike. This week the number on strike rose to 14 refineries, out of a total of 63, involving 5200 workers out of 30,000. This strike has followed a path similar to recent contract strikes. Union officials put demands on the table. The bosses reject them. A strike is declared. Workers show up to picket when they are told and then wait on the negotiations.
The refinery workers, like workers everywhere, have plenty of reasons to strike. Their wages and benefits are under attack. And the bosses refuse to deal with health and safety issues because that often means increasing staffing and less profits for them. Like many other jobs, refinery jobs can be dangerous – with workers suffering acid burns, exposure to toxic fumes due to leaks, refinery fires and other hazards.
One thing that has been different about this strike is that the union officials of the USW (United Steel Workers) have called for support for workers on the picket lines. They have appealed mainly to environmental activists and those in the communities near the refineries to join with them.
They have pointed to the fact that those who live nearby have the same interests as the workers do. When there are accidents, workers and community members all suffer the health impacts and the environment is impacted. Poorly run refineries have the same effect just over a longer period of time.
The union officials are right when they say workers and the nearby communities share a common interest. But why stop there? Workers all have common interests. When one group of workers gains, we all have the possibility of gaining. But that’s not the way we are organized, even if we are in unions. Each contract is for a specific group of workers and that group of workers is supposed to defend itself alone.
The reality is, that the bosses rarely stand alone. They know if any workers begin to get wage and benefit increases, they will be faced with the same demands. So they support each other. They use their politicians and the courts. They use their media to present their case. During the 2013 BART contract, the media carried the bosses’ lies without question. Their reporters went from station to station in search of riders who were pissed off and would denounce the so-called greedy BART workers. Even when BART killed two workers it had sent out to work on the tracks, by running a train with unqualified management at the controls, the media did not investigate.
Unfortunately, in the face of the attacks we confront, the union officials usually offer the same old strategy. They may call workers to rallies or short symbolic strikes. But they keep negotiations a secret and the real power of the workers is not organized and mobilized.
If workers were prepared before the contract expires, it would be different. If people come together to discuss and decide on their demands and make the decisions, it becomes a struggle they can be fully involved in. If the workers who are ready are organized to go out and talk with other workers, people in their communities and the people they provide services for about the real issues, the groundwork for a real fight can be prepared.
We need to see our common interests. We depend on each other for the things we need – from transportation, healthcare, the food we eat, schools our kids go to and the water we drink – everything! We face the same obstacles in our daily lives -juggling pressures at work and home while our wages fall behind and benefits are cut.
Today we are bound by the bosses’ legalisms – their contracts and negotiations. According to the USW it “represents 850,000 workers in North America employed in industries that include metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, plus the service and public sectors” Imagine if the power of just that one union was organized and mobilized!
The slogan of the early workers’ movement “An Injury To One Is An Injury To All” needs to be revived. When workers are on strike we should give them more than a nod of support. We need to get out there and show our support. And wherever we are, we need to begin to organize ourselves.