By Matthew D’Amico
Recently there was an important victory for working people. After a six-weeks’ long strike, oil refinery workers at four plants, members of the United Steelworkers (USW), and Shell Oil came to an agreement on a potential contract. The union cited a number of reasons for striking. Of course wages and the cost of medical insurance were issues. But even more in dispute was the continuing practice by oil companies of reducing the number of men and women working at their refineries, which means that the remaining workers have to do the jobs of those let go and toil longer hours. This invariably leads to fatigue and jeopardizes the safety of both employees and the surrounding communities. In addition, the companies were also using some outside contractors who do not have the same training and skill levels of long-time union employees. All of this directly affects safety. While there continue to be strikes at some of the plants—including BP in Illinois, which has yet to meet the local union’s demands—the contract agreed to represents a major win for labor. Said USW International President Leo Gerard:
“We salute the solidarity exhibited by our membership. There was no way we would have won vast improvements in safety and staffing without it.”
Working at an oil refinery is difficult and frequently dangerous work. Persons work with heavy equipment and a natural resource, oil, which is volatile and highly flammable. An explosion at a BP refinery outside Houston in 2005 killed 15 workers and injured nearly 200. Regulators found BP responsible for knowingly violating safety protocols, and imposed millions in fines. Yet four years later,OSHA found 700 additional violations (NYT 10/30/09) and fined the company $87 million more for not correcting the violations that had caused the first explosion. In an article in Labor Notes by Stephanie Winslow there is this:
“‘We have a lot of forced overtime,’ said Dave Martin, vice president of the local striking the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. ‘That was one of the main issues in the Texas explosion: people working overtime and not making the right decisions.’”
As a political coordinator for a public employee union, I have seen the urgent importance of ensuring workplace safety for employees. The members I represent work in hospitals, courts, parks, and there have been many instances of men and women being injured or even killed on the job. When accidents happen, union health and safety specialists investigate to make sure job sites are made safer. However, there is an important difference between employment in the public sector versus the private sector: the basis of work in the public sector isn’t to make a profit. In these years, however, some state governments have beenprivatizing public services in order to help private businesses. Why this union-busting practice—which affects safety—is on the increase is explained by Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by philosopher and critic Eli Siegel.
In the 1970s, he showed in a series of groundbreaking lectures that our economy—which is based on contemptuously seeing the labor of people as a means of profit for a few—had failed because it’s unethical and inefficient. The evidence of the last decades has confirmed what Mr. Siegel explained. I’ve learned that today the only way our profit-based economy can function is by having people poorer and more desperate for work, and by attacking unions and undermining the gains for which they’ve fought so hard. These gains include the right to safety on the job.
Historically, employers have not given a damn about safe working conditions. This brutal way of seeing is explained by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, in the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known. Discussing a deadly 2010 coal mining explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, Ms. Reiss writes: “According to the New York Times, the company (Massey Energy) had a history of ‘serious and significant’ safety violations.” Further, she explains:
“The company ‘failed to correct’ [safety] problems for only one reason: it would have had to spend money to do so. Every cent a company spends on behalf of workers’ safety is a cent that can’t go into the pockets of the stockholders. In the…New York Times a miner is quoted commenting on why owners ignore safety laws: ‘If you take 30 minutes out of the day doing it right, that takes a lot out of the tonnage of the mine’…The profit system encourages the desire to let people work in conditions that could sicken them and kill them, because that way oneself will have more money.
“The history of industry shows that owners left to themselves have paid workers in a way that made for agonizing poverty. Unions changed that; and also insisted, to the owners’ intense opposition and chagrin, that safety measures be instituted. The United Mine Workers of America is eminent in the history of unions. American men and women in West Virginia and elsewhere fought hard and long and bravely, even gave their lives, so that mines could be unionized—so miners would not be impoverished and hungry; so there would be measures preventing mine collapses and explosions, and measures lessening the extent to which miners took into their lungs the coal dust that had sickened and killed so many.
“The Upper Big Branch mine, where the deadly explosion occurred, was a non-union mine. And that disaster in itself should be enough to have America see how needed and deeply beautiful unions are.”
This safety is part of what the members of the United Steelworkers were fighting for as they went on strike at American oil refineries. The tentative contract agreed to stipulates that there will be a review of staffing and workload assignments, one of the main points the strikers were fighting for. Their very lives depend on their workplaces being safe.
Strikes, Unions, and the Victory of Ethics!
At one time strikes by organized labor were much more prevalent than today. However, in recent years, there have been increasing efforts to keep our profit economy going at the expense of working people. Unions today are under assault from big business working with state governments which provide huge tax breaks and other incentives to profit making corporations. A growing number of states are now “Right to Work,” which makes paying union dues voluntary. I agree with Ellen Reiss who, in issues ofThe Right Of, has been showing that we have come to a point in history where a profit economy can no longer function efficiently if workers are to be paid fairly, have health benefits, pensions, safe conditions—all things that unions stand for. People must be impoverished for profit economics to continue. The alternative is an economy, based not on selfishness, greed, and contempt, but on ethics, on giving people the justice they deserve.
The successful strike by the oil refinery workers is on behalf of that justice and shows that unions still have power. And that’s not all. There have been recent union victories which have gotten little media attention. At FairPoint Communications, members of CWA and IBEW who went on strike late last year in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, got a decent contract last month. Brooklyn Cablevision workers, members of CWA, after a three-year battle, signed a contract with the company—becoming the first employees there to have a union contract. And UAW, representing graduate students at New York University, reached a contract agreement this month. These victories illustrate the rightness of Eli Siegel’s statement: “Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.”
Originally posted on Unions Matter