By the EAST BAY BRANCH of WORKERS’ VOICE
On March 23, members of Workers’ Voice went out to support striking refinery workers at the Chevron facility in Richmond, Calif. This strike is taking place in the wake of the United Steel Workers’ national oil pattern bargaining agreement with the oil companies, which covers some 30,000 workers at refineries and chemical plants across the country. The pattern bargaining agreement now only covers those 30,000 USW-organized oil and chemical workers whose contract expired this year on Feb. 1, which union locals had to ratify.
In Richmond, over 500 oil workers represented by USW Local 5 rejected the tentative agreement, as it was insufficient to meet their needs. They are thus striking over wages, hours, and other workplace issues, including being forced to work during the peak of the COVID pandemic. They have set up 24-hour pickets, with six-hour shifts. The union has created a solidarity fund and will cover basic expenses of workers who can’t pay their mortgage or get health care or food costs covered.
When we visited, the workers were picketing in shifts of a few dozen workers in front of the refinery gate, keeping up an optimistic mood of camaraderie and humor on a chilly, foggy day.
Many of the drivers of vehicles passing by the picket line honked their horns in support. However, a bothersome Richmond cop and one or two surly truckers wanting to drive into the facility—which the workers were trying to block—attempted, unsuccessfully, to dampen the positive atmosphere.
The grievances of the workers relate to wages and to other grievances as well. They need a raise to keep up with cost of living increases, especially in the brutally expensive Bay Area. They’re also confronting increased health-care costs. A worker told us that their new health-care plan would barely be covered by the wage increase of 2.5% currently on offer. This increase would also not keep up with inflation, which was 7% last year alone. Shopping for groceries is much more expensive now, workers we talked to said. In fact, they added, everything is more expensive.
Workers also talked about a manager who got a 10 percent raise to move up from Los Angeles. This upset workers because that manager is already making a good salary. Moreover, Chevron recently reported billions in profits, the most since 2014; but the boss always says there’s no money for workers.
But workers say they’re not just striking about money. Other grievances include:
- Management pushing for language in the contract about disciplining workers who call in sick or refuse to come in on their days off
- 12-hour shifts
- Being forced to work during COVID. Workers were getting sick, but they were forced to keep coming to work
- A labor shortage and the need to hire more workers
The worker told us that this is the first time in 24 years that workers at the Richmond facility have gone on strike. One older worker who went on strike 40 years ago said he felt like the situation was repeating itself today. He mentioned the conflict with Russia and inflation, as was happening in the 1980s.
Their strike is an “Unfair Labor Practice Strike” (ULP) because Chevron refused to bargain “in good faith,” which is sanctioned by labor law. Basically, the company refused to even look at the union demands. Despite this, a few workers told us that they were very upset that Chevron management was spreading lies inside the plant, telling the workers that the strike was illegal. This fact made them quite upset.
Chevron-Richmond workers engaged us in broader political conversations, and the level of morale at the picket line was high. There was excitement about what’s happening more generally with labor, in particular the 2021-2022 uptick in strike actions across the United States. They expressed hope that workers at the Chevron refinery in El Segundo, Calif., would vote down their contract on March 23 [as it turned out, the El Segundo workers voted to ratify the company’s “final offer”]. Workers said that the El Segundo contract was slightly worse than the one at Richmond. The Richmond oil workers we spoke with also expressed solidarity with the teachers’ unions.
Chevron management has forced engineers and low management to replace the strikers on the shop floor, but the oil workers are confident this will not work. Their work is hard, dangerous, and requires skill and experience; it usually takes years to get trained to do it by your fellow co-workers. The scab replacements, who are not unionized and were threatened with getting fired if they did not scab, barely got a few “safety trainings” to comply with OSHA guidelines. The striking workers are betting that engineers will not be able to run production because of their lack of expertise and unfamiliarity with safety procedures, and that they will have to sit down to negotiate with the union.
Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group