Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

To stop Big Oil, environmentalists need labor unions

Winning on Keystone XL and other issues requires thinking about workers’ needs

February 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

In their push to halt construction of the Keystone XL and other pipelines in recent years, environmentalists have often put a familiar question to labor: Which side are you on? More often than not, unions have ended up on the other side of the line in the tar sand, backing the oil and gas industry in its efforts to expand the pipeline and drilling projects that are poised to push us past the point of carbon no return.

With hard-hit construction and trade workers swayed easily by industry’s promise of jobs, no matter how short term, the prospects for recruiting labor in the fight against climate change often look grim. But given that the workers who drill, mine and frack the earth — often at enormous risk to their health and safety — are specially poised to shut down these operations, the environmental movement can’t afford to give up on the idea of a robust blue-green alliance. In order to bring about such an alliance, however, the movement must offer workers something more than the distant promise of green jobs.

On Feb. 1, members of the United Steelworkers (USW) launched the first nationwide refinery strike in more than 30 years, representing a crucial opportunity for environmentalists to stand alongside workers taking on Big Oil. The work stoppage expanded this week to more than 6,500 workers who have walked off the job at 15 refineries and chemical plants across the country.

The historic labor action is taking aim at the grueling conditions that make refineries among the most dangerous places to work in the U.S.; workers in the gas and oil industry are more than six times as likely to die on the job as the average American. In addition to a wage increase, the USW is fighting for adequate staffing, regulations governing the use of nonunion contractors who the union says are often inadequately trained and protections against forced overtime and fatigue in an industry in which workers frequently have 12-hour shifts with no days off for more than a week at a time.

But that’s not all that’s at stake in the first oil strike in a generation. Many of the hazards workers face inside plants are shared by communities living outside the fence line, which are disproportionately low-income African-American and Latino. In 2012 environmental justice groups filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency for neglecting to safeguard the health of residents living in the shadow of refineries, which are known to emit at least 20,000 tons of toxins such as benzene, cyanide, and formaldehyde into the air each year. Environmental groups claim that because of flares, chemical releases and other issues caused by outdated equipment or operating errors, the actual levels of emissions are 10 to 100 times higher than what industry reports to regulators — which could help explain elevated rates of cancer, asthma and birth defects among residents who live near oil refineries. In response, the EPA has proposed new regulations tightening toxin emission limits on refineries and requiring operators to monitor air pollution at the line separating the plant from residents.

The oil industry, predictably, is fighting the new rules tooth and nail, claiming that they would place undue burdens and expenses on refinery operators. Refinery workers, meanwhile, are fighting through their collective bargaining negotiations for many provisions that would advance the same goals of protecting nearby communities.

In Richmond, California, where a 2012 fire at a Chevron refinery sent 15,000 residents to the hospital for smoke inhalation and related injuries, USW Local 5 is fighting for a mechanism known as stop-work authority, which allows workers to shut down operations in the event of a problem. The union’s position echoes that of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which in January issued a final report concluding that the refinery fire resulted from, among other things, a “flawed safety culture,” in which employees felt pressured to maintain operations even in the face of leaks and other serious hazards. The CSB’s recommendations are nonbinding, but the union has the ability to force changes at the refinery through its contract and on-the-job action. Where regulators often lack political power or find themselves hamstrung by industry lobbyists, workers and their unions are often the first line of defense in ensuring community safety as well as their own.

Working people aren’t going to commit economic suicide in order to advance the enhancement of the environment. It’s not the type of choice one should be given.

Tony Mazzochi

Vice President of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers

To overcome Big Oil’s strategy of divide and conquer, green groups must rethink what constitutes an environmental issue to include the health and safety of workers, just as unions must consider the well-being of communities they live and work in as intrinsic to their interests.

Labor, of course, is not a monolith, and many unions have already taken strong stands against climate change. A small group, including the National Nurses United, came out in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and others have lent their numbers to climate marches or formed partnerships with national environmental groups. In the Bay Area, blue-green alliances formed in the wake of Richmond’s refinery fire were on display this month when members of Communities for a Better Environment and the California Nurses Association joined striking refinery workers on the picket lines, carrying signs that read, “Safety before profits” and “Stand together against Big Oil.”

To understand the potential power of such alliances, one need look back only to the legacy of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, whose advocacy of tougher regulations and environmental cleanup won the early support of environmental groups like the Sierra Club. During a 1973 strike against Shell Oil, environmentalists launched a boycott of Shell products that helped propel the union to victory. Working alongside new groups such as Environmentalists for Full Employment, the OCAW helped establish the framework of worker-safety regulation and was instrumental in the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Control Substances Act and other foundational environmental legislation.

However, as the power of unions has declined, a short-sightedness has taken hold in many segments of the labor movement. That includes, as two colleagues and I have reported at In These Times, many energy and construction unions’ decision to enter into a labor-management partnership with the American Petroleum Institute and back its push for the expansion of fracking and drilling, even as the industry group fights new safety regulations that would reduce oil and gas workers’ exposure to cancer-causing substances.

There’s an alternative: The Canadian union UNIFOR, for example, has been pioneering a forward-thinking approach in labor’s ranks, calling for a transition to clean energy that includes retraining and other assistance for workers and even passing a resolution calling for a nationwide fracking moratorium, despite the fact that the union represents workers in the oil and gas industry.

A small but significant group of labor and environmental activists is working at the intersection of these issues, calling for a united front against the oil and gas industry. To that end, the group Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) has issued a call for more green groups to join USW members on the picket lines.

“[Oil refinery workers] deserve the support of environmentalists and everyone concerned about the rights and well-being of working people,” said Joe Uehlein, the executive director of the LNS. “As we work to protect the earth from climate change, it is particularly important that we advocate for the needs of workers in fossil fuel industries, whose well-being must not be sacrificed to the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The LNS and other groups instead advocate a just transition to renewable energy — a concept pioneered in the 1970s by OCAW Vice President Tony Mazzochi, who once remarked, “Working people aren’t going to commit economic suicide in order to advance the enhancement of the environment. It’s not the type of choice one should be given.” The only way to avert both economic and planetary suicide, he argued, was to build a labor-environmental coalition powerful enough to fight for a new economy that includes retraining and compensation for workers and communities who would otherwise be left behind. Any such transition still appears to be a long way off. But the environmental movement can begin to lay the groundwork by siding with workers against Big Oil and showing solidarity with the battles for health and safety that they’re waging today.

Rebecca Burns is an assistant editor for In These Times and a Chicago-based reporter covering labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has appeared in In These Times, Jacobin, Truthout and other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter