To give voice to 35 workers killed on the job over the past 35 years at a massive refinery in Texas City, hundreds of surviving family members, co-workers and friends gathered there last month to erect white crosses marked with their names.
They conducted the ceremony on the 10th anniversary of an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170, including townspeople.
Marathon Petroleum Corp., which bought the refinery from BP two years ago, did its best to shut the mourners up. Marathon uprooted the crosses and tossed them in a box like trash within hours of the commemoration.
For years during contract negotiations, the United Steelworkers (USW) union has pressed ungodly profitable oil companies to improve safety. This fell mostly on deaf ears. On Feb. 1, USW refinery workers began loudly voicing this demand by striking over unfair labor practices (ULP). Ultimately 7,000 struck 15 refineries. Within six weeks, all but five oil corporations settled. Marathon is a hold out. It wants to cut safety personnel. It does not want to hear about dead workers.
Photo of workers protesting Fast Track by Steven Dietz of Sharp Image Studios for the USW
Free traders in Congress formally proposed last week that lawmakers relax, put their feet up and neglect the rigor of legislative review for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade scheme.
The TPP is a secret deal among 12 Pacific Rim nations that was covertly negotiated by unelected officials and corporate bosses. It’s so clandestine that lawmakers elected to represent the American people were refused access to the deliberations. It would expand secret trade tribunals that corporations use to sue governments over democratically established laws and win compensation from taxpayers.
The Congressional free traders want to Fast Track authorization of the TPP. Fast Track enables Congress to abdicate its constitutionally mandated duty to regulate international trade. Instead of scrutinizing, amending and improving proposed trade deals, lawmakers use Fast Track to gloss over the specifics and simply vote yea or nay on the entire package as presented. With elected officials excluded from the talks, details of the treaty deliberately shrouded in secrecy and free traders demanding lawmakers ignore the deal’s effects on constituents, this process condemns democracy.
This is no plea for pity for corporate kingpins like Walmart and McDonald’s inundated by workers’ demands for living wages.
Raises would, of course, cost these billion-dollar corporations something. More costly, though, is the price paid by minimum-wage workers who have not received a raise in six years. Even more dear is what these workers have paid for their campaign to get raises. Managers have harassed, threatened and fired them.
Despite all that, low-wage workers will return to picket lines and demonstrations Wednesday in a National Day of Action in the fight for $15 an hour. The date is 4 – 15. These are workers who live paycheck to paycheck, barely able to pay their bills, and certainly unable to cope with an emergency. They know the risk they’re taking by participating in strikes for pay hikes. They’ve seen bosses punish co-workers for demonstrating for raises. To lose a job, even one that pays poverty wages, during a time of high unemployment is terrifying. Still, thousands will participate Wednesday. That is valor.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence by DonkeyHotey on Flickr
After Indiana Republicans passed a license to discriminate law, a restaurant called Memories Pizza in the Hoosier town of Walkerton stepped up last week to make sure potential customers knew its religious rules: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Certification of Heterosexuality, No Service.”
Indiana GOP Gov. Mike Pence provided official sanction for such acts of oppression when he signed a gay-bashing version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It enabled individuals and businesses to legally claim their faith required hateful acts of intolerance. Pence got all huffy when human rights groups accused him of seeking to change the state’s slogan from Hoosier Hospitality to Hoosier Hostility.
Marriage-equality-hating Indiana Republicans were joined by counterparts in Arkansas, North Carolina and Georgia in advancing government-sanctioned discrimination. This is not the way Americans treat each other. Well, not in 2015 anyway. America traveled down the path of intolerance for too many centuries. Now, Americans look back at all-white lunch counters with shame. Despite anxiety about ISIS, they disapprove of blaming terrorism on all Muslims. Americans aren’t perfect inclusive egalitarians. But they’re trying. On a deeply spiritual level, they hate institutionalization of minority hate.
Sucker punched by massive, illegally subsidized imports, American steel producers laid off thousands of workers in bedrock communities from Ohio and Illinois to Texas and Alabama.
That’s in just the past three months.
The families of furloughed workers are struggling to pay mortgage bills. The communities, losing tax dollars, are canceling needed road work. The companies are talking about the similarities between now and the 1990s when half of the nation’s steel firms disappeared. Members of the Congressional Steel Caucus are worrying about the effect on national security if America can’t make its own steel for guns and tanks.
Virtually everyone who testified last week at a Congressional hearing on the state of steel fingered bad trade as the culprit in the current collapse. Lawmakers, steel company executives, industry group leaders and a vice president of the United Steelworkers (USW) union all agreed on this. Foreign firms, particularly those operating in non-capitalist countries, are violating international trade regulations. Those rules also require American companies, communities and workers to forfeit a pound of flesh before trade enforcement can occur. They’re failing America.
Shock and awe describes the budgets issued last week by Republicans in the House and Senate. The shock is that the GOP never stops trying to destroy beloved programs like Medicare. Awe inspiring is their audacity in describing their killing plans as moral.
When the House released its budget last Tuesday, Georgia Republican Rep. Rob Woodall said, “A budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are.” His chamber’s spending plan shows that Republicans highly value war and place no value on health care for America’s elderly, working poor and young adults.
The opposite of win-win, the GOP budgets are kill-kill. Despite the GOP’s successful demand in 2011 for spending caps, Republicans now want more money for the military. War kills, as too many families of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan know. By contrast, Republicans gouge domestic spending, condemning Americans to die unnecessarily from untreated disease. The GOP intends to revoke the health insurance of tens of millions by repealing the Affordable Care Act, voucherizing Medicare and slashing Medicaid. The Republican plans mandate overtime for the Grim Reaper.
Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last week to lower the wages of Wisconsin’s middle class workers. He wants pay cuts for hard working Wisconsinites.
It’s part of a pattern established by Wisconsin’s Republican governor and the Republicans who control the state legislature. Earlier, they slashed the paychecks of teachers and government workers by 8 to 10 percent. Wisconsin Republicans refused to raise the minimum wage for workers who haven’t seen an increase in six years, even as 29 states gave raises to the lowest paid. Meanwhile, Walker and his GOP gang butchered state funding for public schools and propose the same fate for the state’s public universities – the colleges that, until now, the middle class could afford.
For putting the squeeze on workers, Walker is the darling of the GOP. In some polls, the college dropout is their leading candidate for the presidential nomination. His Mitt Romney-like hatred of the 47 percent, the working poor and organized labor is so GOP-revered that freshmen Republican governors like Bruce Rauner of Illinois are aping his efforts to shove workers down.
To Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, America's labor union members are the same as murderous, beheading, caged-prisoner-immolating ISIS terrorists. Exactly the same.
That's what he told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week. The governor said that because he destroyed public sector labor rights in Wisconsin after 100,000 union supporters protested in Madison he could defeat ISIS as President of the United States.
That sums up all the GOP hate and vitriol against labor union members in recent years. It would appear that Republicans can't discern the difference between suicide bombers and working men and women who band together to collectively bargain for better wages and safer conditions. Republicans, it seems, can't see that a foreign extremist group that kidnaps 276 schoolgirls is not the same as an American labor organization seeking to improve the lives of families and communities. This GOP blindness explains the relentless campaign by GOP leaders to renege on contractual obligations to workers, squash labor rights and slash the pay and benefits of union members.
The billionaire Republican Governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, injected himself into ceremonies in Chicago last week presided over by the city’s Democratic mayor and the nation’s Democratic President.
Rauner insisted on attending because he wrongheadedly thought the Democrats were honoring his idol, kingpin George Pullman, the guy who invented the luxury railroad sleeper car, oppressed his workers and suppressed their union.
Rauner, and other kowtow-to-the-rich Republican governors, adhere to the Pullman philosophy that rich people are better than everyone else and that gives them the right to control the lives of everyone else. They don’t comprehend the dreams and desires of the middle class and working poor. So Rauner couldn’t conceive that the ceremony in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood named Pullman by Pullman for his personal self-aggrandizement was not about placing the mogul on a pedestal but really about recognizing the people who ultimately prevailed despite his exploitation.
The federal agency that investigates refinery catastrophes released its final report late last month on the massive fire, volatile vapor release and toxic smoke plume at Chevron’s Richmond, Calif., refinery in 2012 that imperiled 19 workers and sickened 15,000 residents of surrounding communities.
The report says Chevron knew the pipe that ruptured was made of material likely to corrode, that pipes of the same material at Chevron plants had previously failed and caused fires, that Chevron repeatedly rebuffed experts’ recommendations to replace the pipe, and that when the pipe did begin to breach, Chevron disastrously attempted to patch it instead of shutting down the high-pressure, high-temperature hydrocarbon process unit to which it was attached.
For neighborhoods around the refinery, the upshot of all of those decisions by Chevron was a nearly six-hour order for residents to remain indoors as their homes were engulfed in smoke and soot. Approximately 15,000 received medical treatment for breathing difficulty, chest pain, headaches and eye irritation. Twenty were admitted to hospitals. Incredibly, 19 workers caught in a highly flammable vapor cloud all survived with only minor injuries.
Because of oil companies’ bad-faith bargaining and other serious unfair labor practices, more than 5,000 refinery workers who are members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union are conducting unfair labor practice strikes across America. Those at Richmond are among 25,000 USW-represented refinery workers still working, but they strongly support the demand for safety and they’re strongly supported by Richmond residents who know they’re endangered when workers are. They all want refineries to become good neighbors.
Artist rendering of USW member Charles Wharton carrying a critically injured co-worker to safety after a 2009 explosion at the CITGO refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. Art by Frederick H. Carlson of Carlson Studio.
In Anacortes, Wash., last week, approximately 200 Tesoro workers began picketing the oil refinery where an explosion incinerated seven of their co-workers five years earlier.
Butch Cleve walks that picket line, serving now as strike captain for the USW local union at Tesoro. On the day of the catastrophe in 2010, Cleve walked the coroner to the shrouded bodies of three of his friends.
Steve Garey, who helped make the decision to strike as a member of the USW’s oil bargaining policy committee, wept repeatedly that April day five years ago as he told the relatives of his dead friends that their loved ones would never come home.
Kim Nibarger, a USW health and safety specialist, suffered flashbacks of an earlier blast as he investigated the one at Tesoro. He was an operator in 1998 at the refinery adjacent to Tesoro in Anacortes when a massive detonation instantly cremated six of his co-workers.
The Tesoro strikers are among more than 5,000 USW members nationwide on unfair labor practice strikes demanding corporations respect their bargaining rights and the rights of workers and communities to safety.
Over the past two negotiation cycles, the USW’s 30,000 refinery and chemical workers struggled to persuade their highly profitable employers to include strong safety language in the collective bargaining agreements. The deaths at Tesoro, as well as fatalities, injuries, explosions, fires and toxic releases at other plants nationwide since then, demonstrate that the measures didn’t go far enough. Now refinery and chemical workers are trying to increase the odds that they aren’t killed at work and that their communities aren’t engulfed in flames or fumes.
The people of Greece rebelled last week against the perverse notion that they should continue to endure biting austerity in a vain attempt to cure a condition that they are not solely responsible for creating.
Sounds familiar, right? It’s like American workers forced to suffer through a recession that they didn’t cause, a recession that was, in fact, a result of banks’ reckless risk-taking.
When bets by big banks worldwide failed spectacularly in 2008, markets imploded and economies collapsed. Bailed-out banks, the wealthiest 1 percent and export-based economies like China and Germany quickly recovered. But workers struggled long-term. Austerity imposed on them was a big part of the reason. Workers were the victims of austerity’s slashed public services, wages and jobs. Those demanding austerity – the 1 percent – and those imposing it – conservative politicians – escaped its bitter effects with shields of cash. Austerity was not for them. It was for those without big bankrolls. That would be bad enough if austerity worked. But, as Greece illustrates horribly, it does not.