Driving down a busy highway just outside Los Angeles, California takes you right alongside the Tesoro Los Angeles refinery, capable of refining 363,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Drive by in the last month and you might notice that on top of the usual bright lights, tall smoke stacks and large tanks there is something a bit different. The slogans “Never Again,” “Safe Refineries Save Lives,” and “Fair
Contract Now” have been projected on the sides of the tanks for all passing by to see.
This visual display periodically accompanies the picketing oil workers, who walked off the job on in early February as part of U.S. wide strike actions. On February 1, 2015 oil workers from seven refineries in the U.S. went on strike for improved working conditions, primarily better workplace safety. By the fourth week of the strike, 5 other refineries, a co-generation plant and two petrochemical plants had joined the Unites Steelworkers (USW) unfair labour practice strike, which includes plants in Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana and Washington. In total, there are now nearly 7,000 oil workers on strike at 15 plants, which are responsible for 20% of the crude oil refining capacity of the U.S.
'We all go to work to make a living, but in making a living we all want to come home.” - Tracy Scott, oil refinery worker, currently on leave to work for the union as a staff representative at the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in an interview for InTheseTimes.com.
The strikes began after negotiations between the USW and Shell Oil Co., who is bargaining as a representative of many of the world's major oil companies targeted in the strikes, failed to produce a new contract before the old contracts expired. Health and safety is the major concern of the oil workers, who have seen worsening conditions over the last many years, in an already dangerous industry. Gross neglect by companies and management includes: the refusal to replace old equipment, the under-staffing of plants resulting in unacceptable levels of fatigue in workers, and a general decline in the number of experienced, unionized maintenance workers, as oil companies move towards contracting out more and more of the every day upkeep of refineries and plants. Take, for example, the April 10, 2010 explosion and fire at the Tesoro Anacortes plant in Washington State, which killed 7 workers and injured 180. This tragedy occurred when a heat exchanger failed during a maintenance operation - the heat exchanger was nearly 40 years old!
Over the last month, the strikes have continued to spread and workers have held the line because big oil has refused to bargain over the fundamental right of a person to go to work and not risk their lives, and the safety of their communities, for a pay cheque. This is despite the fact that in the year 2013 alone, the top five oil companies in world made a combined $93 billion in profits.
“An injury to one is an injury to all”
During the month-long strike, workers out on the picket lines have not been alone. Since the walkouts began, communities and workers have come together, both in the U.S. and internationally, to show support for the strike actions. This included a “National day of Action for Safe Refineries, Secure Jobs and Healthy Communities,” called by the USW on February 7. On this day rallies and marches took place at over 50 locations around the U.S. There have also been international delegations and messages of support from many unions around the world.
As poor and working people in Canada, we need to understand the significance of this continued action by nearly 7,000 USW workers in the U.S. By taking a stand for their health and safety, up against one of the largest industries in the world, oil workers in the U.S. are also taking a stand for the health and safety of all of us. Their victory in defense of their basic rights would be a victory for all workers, who would see that unity in struggle and in strike action can result in victory. Let us not forget that in 2013, 902 workers in Canada lost their lives due to work-related injury or illness, and this is a minimum number based only on specific statistics and definitions compiled by the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada.
Furthermore, it is especially important that people in the environmental movement come together in support of striking oil workers. Oil workers are in fact, the very people capable of creating fundamental change in the oil industry. They are also the workers that every day prevent toxic spills and gas releases from destroying our land and communities further. Through this strike for better and safer working conditions they are fighting to preserve their ability to operate plants in a way that prevents leaks, fires and explosions. They are the workers that the environmental movement needs to march on together in the fight to save this planet from destruction.
As the world capitalist economic crisis deepens, health and safety at the workplace in every major industry, everywhere around the world, is going to decline. In an effort to constantly increase super-profits, industries are going push for more and more cuts to workplace safety, wages and benefits, and expansion of the contracting out of labour. That it is why it is so important for us to defend these rights today and support the striking oil workers in the U.S.
Continue following the strike at www.oilbargaining.org
Support and join the striking U.S. oil workers!
Victory to the striking U.S oil workers now!
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