The walkout of 600 workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., will enter its third week on Monday. As the strike coincided with mass protests and strikes across the United States and around the world over rising costs of living, the United Steelworkers (USW) worked with the energy giant to isolate the strike and impose an austerity contract on Richmond.
The strike in Richmond broke out on March 21 after workers rejected two local agreements brokered by USW Local 5, which were based on the nationwide sell-out agreement the USW imposed on 30,000 workers in refinery and petrochemicals in 12 companies across the country. It included a 12% salary increase over four years, or about 3% per year.
USW Local 5 is currently asking for an additional 5% wage increase over the term of the contract, or about 4.25% per year, well below the nominal US inflation rate of about 8%. Due to the high cost of housing in the Bay Area, workers travel long distances to get to work, and rising fuel costs – California has the highest price in the country – have hit their wages hard. Additionally, due to substandard health care benefits, out-of-pocket health care costs for Chevron workers have risen 23% in the last year alone.
Workers on the picket line told the WSWS that they demanded “standby” pay because they are often required to be on call to report for work, making it impossible to schedule even the most demanding tasks. elementary. They also want an end to exhausting and dangerous working hours and better safety protections in the facility.
The strike has the potential to galvanize working class support across the oil industry, as many refinery and transportation workers experience the same exploitative conditions.
Michael, a Bay Area tanker driver, told the WSWS, “I support the strike in Richmond unconditionally. Chevron workers should be paid more and WTL [Williams Tank Lines, a trucking company] workers should also be better paid.
“We’re waiting 90 minutes at the rack today [to pick up the gas], all the WTL guys were sleeping. They’re crushed, most are away from their families, and they don’t get paid as much as Chevron employees. There is a common struggle here against the leadership.
The USW tried to keep workers isolated and force Chevron workers to accept the same deal the union forced on workers across the industry, through a campaign of intimidation and lies. Although the oil companies have reaped huge profits, which have grown even more steeply since the invasion of Ukraine, USW President Tom Conway hailed his deal as a “responsible contract” and one that ” does not increase prices and inflationary pressures”.
The national accord was announced just days after Conway met with President Joe Biden and senior cabinet officials. Although the contents of that meeting have been kept secret, it is almost certain that Biden has made it clear that he does not want major strikes disrupting oil production amid the US proxy war against Russia in Ukraine.
After workers at the Phillips 66 refinery in Billings, Montana rejected their contract earlier, USW International forced a new vote. Across the country, the USW held “briefings” with workers at Marathon and other companies, during which they claimed the company would fire all workers in the event of a strike. A Marathon, Washington worker told the WSWS that the USW told the workers they “would be on their own without USW support” if they went on strike.
Days after the Richmond strike began, the USW worked to avert a second strike at Chevron by quickly reaching a deal at the company’s El Segundo refinery outside of Los Angeles. According to california globethe deal was offered by Chevron and accepted by USW Local 675 on the same day, meaning the approximately 1,000 workers at the Southern California refinery had little to no time to review the contract.
The El Segundo and Richmond facilities together supply 20% of the gas and aviation fuel used throughout California, the nation’s largest state. Chevron has attempted to keep the Richmond refinery in operation by using managers as scabs, posing immense dangers to the surrounding community.
The USW’s actions to keep the strike isolated mirror the strategy employed during the 10-month lockout of workers at ExxonMobil’s refinery and processing plant in Beaumont, Texas. The USW isolated the strike, ignoring calls from rank-and-file workers across the industry for a sympathy strike, then agreed to a contract, which gutted seniority and job-selection rights and quadrupled the “trial” period for new workers from 6 to 24 months.
The Richmond strikers must draw the necessary conclusions from the isolation of Beaumont workers that any successful struggle against these multinational oil companies requires a united struggle between workers at other refineries and beyond. Already, the strike has intersected with emerging struggles among transportation and dockworkers, as well as teachers in the Bay Area.
Another local South Bay truck driver told the WSWS that the gas industry in the Bay Area is largely dependent on shipping from BNSF, the railroad owned by Warren Buffett. Earlier this year, the company imposed a punitive attendance policy on its 17,000 workers, the so-called Hi-Viz system, which reduces the number of days off due to illness, fatigue or personal problems from 84 a year to 22.
A Texas federal judge has blocked a strike by BNSF workers citing the need to maintain essential supply lines. Several BNSF unions have announced they will not challenge an undemocratic injunction imposed by a federal judge, which makes the workers’ planned strike illegal.
A similar problem related to maritime transport emerged with the contract of more than 22,000 dockworkers which was due to expire on June 30. A stevedores’ strike would impact 29 ports on the US West Coast, including the critical ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles through which nearly three-quarters of cargo from Asia to the US passes.
The Richmond strike is also located a short distance from Sacramento, where around 5,000 teachers and staff have been on strike since March 23. Notably, many teachers told oil workers similar concerns about low pay and attacks on their health care. Teachers also expressed that workplace safety is a major issue for them given the continued spread of COVID-19 in schools.
To break the isolation of the Richmond strike, the WSWS encourages workers to join the Oil Workers Rank-and-File Committee (OWRFC) to establish direct lines of communication and coordinated action with workers across the industry and beyond. The OWRFC is part of a network of rank-and-file committees, independent of pro-corporate unions and Democrats and Republicans, fighting to unite workers against the austerity contracts imposed by the USW and management.
To join or for more information, email [email protected]