Category: USW
Tariff Follies
worker | November 20, 2020 | 7:47 pm | Labor, USW | Comments closed

Tariff Follies

To its credit, The United Steelworker (USW) has lifted the living standards and working conditions of millions of workers. Birthed from the militant 1930s Steel Workers Organizing Committee and midwifed by hundreds of Communist and socialist organizers, the USW became a strong advocate of industrial unionism and one of the more progressive forces in US political life.

But with the Cold War and the purging or repression of its most militant members, the USW abandoned the class-confrontation approach of its early years for a partnership with capital. In place of exercising the strength and power of a united membership, the union leadership chose a partnership approach, negotiating contracts based upon the notion that the worker and the boss had a common interest.

In the contest of the early Cold war, capital accepted some concessions to labor to guarantee US labor’s loyalty to US foreign policy objectives. In return for US labor leaders policing domestic radicalism in the workplace and for international collaboration in fighting Communism, the bosses tacitly agreed to accept wage and benefit growth commensurate with rising productivity.

With the onset of the economic crisis in the 1970s and with the ruling class turning toward market fundamentalism, capital reneged on its part of the partnership, attacking labor with vengeance. The implicit partnership was dissolved by one side.

Unfortunately, the other side– organized labor (in this case, the USW)– clung to the partnership. Despite restructuring, downsizing, plant closures, and concession demands, the USW stood by the philosophy of cooperation, what their critics called “class collaboration.”

Since we can remember, one expression of this affinity with corporate bosses has taken the form of seeking protection from foreign competitors. From inviting workers to sledgehammer Toyotas to advocating for steel tariffs, the USW leadership has maintained that what is good for steel corporations doing business in the USA is good for USW steelworkers.

In recent years, the protectionist demand was at odds with the political mainstream, including the union’s putative ally, the Democratic Party. Since the rise of Thatcher/Carter/Reagan/Clintonism, unfettered free markets have been an ideological fixation of all the bourgeois parties and their policy makers, placing tariffs and other protectionist policies beyond the pale.

But in 2016, the USW leadership found their savior. Donald Trump rudely arrived to occupy the White House.

Moreover, he kept his promise in 2018 to impose restrictive tariffs on all the imported steel coming into the United States. Unfortunately for the USW and their bet on protectionism, the Trump tariffs failed to meet their expectations. As The Wall Street Journal reports: “With the expanded production, about 6,000 jobs were added to the U.S. steel industry’s workforce after tariffs started in 2018, according to the Census Bureau. By the end of 2019, though, those gains evaporated as steel demand and prices sank.” [my emphasis]

Authors Bob Tita and William Mauldin (Tariffs Didn’t Fuel Revival for American Steel, WSJ, 10-28-2020) add that: “Higher prices [initially] also made steel more expensive for manufacturers that buy it, leading to the loss of about 75,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs, according to a study released late last year by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.”

In addition, foreign steel makers secured punitive export tariffs in retaliation, further hurting domestic US manufacturing.

The lack of growth in demand for steel in the USA has forced domestic producers to seek exports of steel to markets outside the USA in search of profits, the same strategy practiced by the “foreign” competition.

A major component of Trump’s 2016 victorious campaign message which helped him secure votes in the Rust Belt was his promise of major investment to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs. It never got off the ground because it was based on the false notion that capitalists will invest in the public good. Things like fixing public schools, hospitals, water systems, pollution control, and building mass transit systems simply don’t offer returns to investors even though they will provide for the public good, boost steel production, and create tens of thousands of steelworker jobs.

Instead, Trump, true to his real, big-business agenda, pushed a major tax cut that actually reduced the revenue available for any public investment. Rather than drain the swamp, Trump drained the public coffers and offered the syrup of “public private partnerships” that were supposed to entice capitalists to invest. They never did.

Not to be outdone, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that the Republican-controlled legislature of Pennsylvania has now taken this phony concept to its practical conclusion which will result in the proposed tolling of many bridges in Pennsylvania as a way of making the “partnership” work to increase state revenues. Rather than tax the wealth of billionaires and corporations to obtain necessary revenues to rebuild in the public interest, we instead have tax cuts for the rich and privatization of necessary networks and services.

Understandably, the US-based steel industry sought to garner greater market share through the tariff program. However, the USW leadership failed to acknowledge one of the more basic laws of capitalism: with tariff-induced prices soaring and foreign competition locked out, domestic capitalist enterprises were incentivized to engage in an orgy of expansion and production. As a result of this classic overproduction-induced crisis, prices collapsed and the industry withdrew, with layoffs and closed facilities. Prices for hot-rolled coiled sheet steel increased by nearly half to $920 a ton after the tariffs were imposed, but are now below their pre-tariff level.

The advocates of tariffs as a remedy for layoffs and stagnant or declining wages and benefits forget that capitalism runs on profits and not sharing the wealth. The Communist, socialist, and other militant trade unionists who founded the union understood this truth. They sought a union that would fight the corporations for a greater portion of those profits for the workers.

Today’s leadership of the USW mistakenly believes that workers will benefit if “our” corporations are favored over “theirs.” They fantasize a world where foreigners are rapacious cheaters and US producers are inspired by the greater good. “Theirs” are driven by ruthless competition, while “ours” are committed to fairness and partnership. Lurking beneath the rhetoric is a not-too-subtle national chauvinism.

Surely, the experience with the Trump tariffs reveals that the protectionist approach not only slanders foreigners, but fails to protect domestic production, jobs, and compensation. Domestic producers, like their foreign counterparts, are ruled by the laws of motion of the capitalist system. Bust follows boom, whether it applies to a protected national market or a global unfettered market.

The union’s reliance on this cooperative approach with the steel corporations defangs it for the necessary independent political action program that could unite the membership and the general public in a fight for jobs and investment in decaying infrastructure. All research shows that this is a real path forward to create steel demand and union jobs. It’s plain to see and many studies document that America’s infrastructure is in horrible shape. Tariffs have not increased domestic demand for steel. The only way to increase domestic steel production is through a massive reinvestment program that not only rebuilds the decaying American infrastructure in the public interest but creates steelworker jobs.

Rather than casting their fate with their privately owned corporate rivals for the wealth created by the workers, unions should fight those rivals for a greater share. If they want to guarantee jobs, security, and compensation, they should struggle to eliminate the private corporations altogether. A real fighting union would be for public ownership of the steel industry.

Greg Godels

Ed Grystar

Support the USW members who are on strike for safer work conditions!
worker | March 18, 2015 | 9:10 pm | Action, Local/State, National, USW | Comments closed

Please sign the petition supporting the USW members who are on strike:

USW Strike Expands, Enters Fourth Week
worker | February 23, 2015 | 8:53 pm | Local/State, National, USW | Comments closed


The United Steelworkers union has expanded a strike against the oil industry that has now entered its fourth week with no talks currently planned, the Houston Chronicle reports. The article quotes Brother Lee Medley of USW:


Seeking to ratchet up the pressure on energy companies, the United Steelworkers union expanded its strike to the nation’s biggest refinery, Motiva Enterprise’s plant in Port Arthur, where 800 workers walked off the job early Saturday.


Union workers struck the Port Arthur site, a joint venture between Shell and a unit of Saudi Aramco that has the capacity to turn 600,000 barrels of oil a day into gasoline and other refined products. The Steelworkers also issued notices of strikes to start early Sunday morning to two Motiva refineries in Louisiana, along with a Shell chemical plant there.


The strike began Feb. 1 at nine refineries and plants after union and energy company negotiators could not resolve disputes including those over safety, scheduling and contracting out jobs.


Including Sunday’s action, it now covers 15 facilities. That includes 12 refineries that represent about 20 percent of the nation’s refining capacity, according to a local refining consulting firm.


Five of the sites being struck are in the Houston area, including three refineries. Others are in Kentucky, Indiana, California, Ohio and Washington state. Companies targeted so far also include BP, Marathon Petroleum, LyondellBasell, Tesoro, Shell and Motiva…


The latest decision to expand the work action came to a head swiftly Friday after contract negotiations appeared to break down about 7 p.m., said Lee Medley, president of the Shell/Motiva National Workers Council. He wasn’t in the room, but said there is growing frustration among union officials that key health, safety and employment security concerns aren’t getting attention.


“They haven’t addressed anything,” he said.


Read more:

Safe refineries save lives: Support USW refinery workers on strike
worker | February 21, 2015 | 7:57 pm | Action, Announcements, Economy, Local/State, National, USW | Comments closed

Safe Refineries Save Lives

USW oil workers have been forced into an unfair labor strike against the oil industry. These brave sisters and brothers are fighting for safe workplaces and communities. The companies’ bad faith bargaining, including refusal to bargain over mandatory subjects and undue delays in providing information, impeded bargaining and led to the strike. You can help stand with our brothers and sisters by clicking to sign our petition telling oil industry management and federal, state and local officials that we all want safe refineries. Safe workplaces don’t just protect workers, but also the communities where we live and work.


Boycott Shell Oil Company!
worker | February 14, 2015 | 8:28 pm | Action, Labor, National, USW | Comments closed


We support the efforts of the USW union to improve the wages and benefits as well as working conditions of the striking refinery workers. Jobs in refineries are dangerous and require a high level of skill. As we know from the BP disasters, mistakes can cause catastrophes for the surrounding communities and the environment. These workers deserve to be compensated well and treated fairly. Failure to bargain fairly in these negotiations will only reflect the Shell Oil Company’s lack of regard for the workers and the communities in which their enterprises are located. We refuse to buy Shell products until the strike is settled.

That’s why I created a petition to Ben van Beurden, CEO, which says:

“We support the striking USW members at Shell Oil Company refineries. We will support the workers by boycotting Shell Oil Company products.”

Will you sign this petition? Click here:


Striking Oil Workers Say They’re Fighting Deadly Working Conditions
worker | February 13, 2015 | 8:24 pm | Analysis, Economy, Labor, Local/State, National, USW | Comments closed

BY Rebecca Burns

A worker at the Richmond, California, Chevron refinery and her family on the picket line. The strike—the first in a generation—has now entered its second week.   (Rebecca Burns)

MARTINEZ, CALIFORNIA—During the nearly four decades he’s worked at the Golden Eagle refinery here, Howard Jones has seen four changes in the facility’s ownership and three major workplace accidents. What Jones, a mechanical designer in the plant’s engineering department, wasn’t expecting to see was another day when workers at the plant would walk off the job en masse.

“I was hoping I’d be retired before we had to do that again,” says Jones, who took part in the 1980 strike that shut down oil refineries across the country. Last week, Jones and nearly 3,800 members of the United Steelworkers (USW) once again walked off the job in the first nationwide strike at refineries in more than 30 years.

The union says that its members are engaged in an unfair labor practices (ULP) work stoppage as a result of oil companies’ bad-faith bargaining, refusal to discuss safety improvements, and other non-wage issues. that it is seeking in national contract negotiations (though a USW spokesperson says that no ULPs have yet been filed). The Steelworkers’ current contract expired on February 1.

On Saturday, USW members staged rallies at more than 60 refineries across the country as part of a national day of action meant to spur oil companies to settle an agreement with U.S refinery owners, led by Royal Dutch Shell. The union rejected a new contract offer made on Thursday, saying it made “minimal movement” on key concerns.

USW and Shell resumed meeting on Tuesday, but an update sent to union members reported that “little progress” had been made in negotiations.

Among the changes the union is seeking are lower out-of-pocket healthcare costs, a reduction in the use of non-union contractors and adequate staffing and protections to address what workers call a “fatigue policy”: contiguous 12-hour shifts for up to two weeks at a time. Gas and oil workers are more than six times more likely to die on the job than the average American, and the union asserts that forced overtime and industry corner-cutting drive up fatalities.

At a rally Saturday at the Golden Eagle refinery, now owned by Tesoro, striking workers were joined by their counterparts from nearby Chevron and Shell plants, as well as members from several local unions and community groups. Workers at other Bay Area-refineries are still on the job, but could join the stoppage if no resolution is reached. Yesterday, the strike widened to include two BP refineries in Indiana and Ohio, bringing the total number of workers involved to nearly 5,000 at 11 refineries and chemical plants nationwide.

BP said in a statement that it was “disappointed” that the union is launching a strike at the two refineries.

Oil companies have kept most of these refineries operating in spite of the work stoppage. As reported by Reuters, refinery owners are expected to reprise some of the same measures used during the 1980 strike, such as sending managers to fill union positions.

That strike lasted more than three months, and Jones remembers the hardship that this caused among his fellow employees. The stress of the long campaign led to more than one divorce, and one union member committed suicide, he says. But ultimately, the strike led to important gains in workers’ wages and benefits, Jones says, as well as a stronger hand in designing workplace safety measures.

Today, Tesoro workers say that they are excluded from decisions that impact their health and safety. The Tesoro plant has gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous workplaces in the industry since four workers died in a 1999 explosion, and Jones fears that safety could deteriorate further in the wake of the company’s 2012 decision to cancel an accident prevention and investigation program administered by the union and to back out of another safety program run by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administrations.

“Those programs did a lot of good,” he says, “But I don’t think management liked union people drilling down into their policies.”

As a member of the local bargaining committee, Jones hopes that the first oil strike in a generation can once again improve conditions at the facility.“It’s about showing the company that we’re willing to fight,” he says.

Unions representing oil companies use a process known as “pattern bargaining,” under which negotiations proceed at two levels. “National Oil Bargaining” talks take place between Shell and the USW and focus on establishing a pattern of wages, benefits and working conditions. Bargaining by union locals proceeds simultaneously, but excludes issues being discussed at the national table. Bay Area refineries, represented by the USW Local 5, are contending with a host of safety issues specific to each plant, as well the establishment of a civil and human rights committee to concentrate on increasing the number of women and people of color hired at the plant.

Angelina Salinas, who works at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, rallied Saturday with a sign reading, “Women and Minorities Matter.” She emphasized that all union members at her plant share a common set of issues, but that women in particular “have to fight for fair treatment.” At the Shell plant in Martinez, the union says that management has not released figures on how many women and minorities are employed at the plant.

In August 2012, Richmond was the site of a devastating refinery fire that landed more than 15,000 area residents in the hospital with injuries like smoke inhalation. There were no fatalities, but the blaze was a near-miss for 19 workers enveloped in a vapor cloud that was released when a corroded pipe ruptured. An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) concluded that Chevron had known about the corrosion for 10 years but had ignored a series of dire reports from its own technical personnel.

In January, the CSB released a final report, outlining a “flawed safety culture” that exerted pressure on employees to maintain operations even in the face of leaks and other serious hazards. Though Chevron maintains that employees already have a “stop work authority” to shut down operations in case of problems, the union says that managers often second-guess or punish workers who use it, and is seeking a stronger codification of stop work authority in local bargaining.

As In These Times has reported previously, the Chevron refinery fire touched off unprecedented levels of collaboration between labor and environmental justice groups in Richmond, bridging a gulf between two groups that are often portrayed as fundamentally at odds with each other. But USW Local 5 and local environmental organizations have repeatedly made the case that worker safety and community safety are intertwined—an argument that, as labor writer Steve Early noted last week, recalls the strong blue-green alliances built under the leadership of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union (which merged with the USW in 1999) during a series of nationwide oil strikes in the 1970s.

As the strike rolls into its second week, some green groups may join workers on the picket line. “The oil companies are creating conditions that make it impossible for refinery workers to protect us,” said Joe Uehlein, executive eirector of the Labor Network for Sustainability, in a statement addressed to environmental activists. “Their strike is about making conditions that are safe and healthy for workers and communities.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times assistant editor based in Chicago, where she also covers labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at] Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

Houston, we have a problem: Strike at major oil refineries
worker | February 13, 2015 | 7:10 am | Analysis, Economy, Labor, Local/State, National, USW | Comments closed
SOURCE: People’s World

February 6 2015

HOUSTON – In the largest strike since 1980, oil workers who are members of USW District 13 locals (Locals 13-1 and Local 13-227) are no longer on the job on the Houston Channel, which is the largest petrochemical complex in the world. The strike kicked off Feb. 1.
Combined, the three refineries impacted by the first strike actions have a total capacity of 700,000 barrels per day.  This represents 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity. The Houston Ship channel strikes are part of a national strike by oil workers that includes nine refineries and chemical plants in California, Kentucky, Texas, and Washington.
The three plants impacted by the strike in Houston include Shell Oil Refinery and Chemical Plant, Lyondell Basell Refinery, and Marathon (refinery and cogeneration facility). A total of 2,200 striking workers are in District 13 and a total of 5,000 in the greater Houston area. The remaining refineries and oil facilities are operating under a rolling 24-hour contract extension.
The USW said in a statement that it “represents 850,000 men and women employed in metals, mining, pulp and paper, rubber, chemicals, glass, auto supply, and energy-producing industries, along with a growing number of workers in public sector and service occupations. Union members also account for 64 percent of the country’s oil refining capacity, and more locations could soon join the strike if necessary.”
The union is under attack in Texas, with USW members locked out at the Sherwin Alumina plant in Corpus Christi and the ASARCO facility in Amarillo. The attack on the union is occurring while the industry made record profits.  Royal Dutch Shell announced earnings of $19 billion in 2014. LyondellBasell had record profits of 7.1 billion (EBITD) in 2014, cash generation of $6.0 billion. These profits in large part went to reward stock holders rather than repairs, stock repurchases over worker safety, to the tune of $7.2 billion in dividends. This largesse extended to a jump in compensation for their corporate officers.
The USW oil workers plan a noon rally at Shell headquarters in downtown Houston (1 Shell Plaza at 901 Louisiana) on Friday, Feb. 6 to “show management that union workers are united in their drive for a fair contract that improves safety throughout the industry.”
The union also plans a National Day of Action at 65 oil refineries and steel workers at almost 200 other facilities across the country, including oil terminals, pipelines, petrochemical plans, will also participate in solidarity actions.  The actions will take place on Saturday, Feb. 7. The union is conducting food drives, donations, gift cards, pass the bucket at work, adopt-a-family, volunteers to picket at a sister plant and supporting the day of action.
The workers have a number of grievances. One is the “on-call system.” They report that they are asked to be on call when the plants anticipate possibly being short-handed. This means that, supplied with pagers, workers may be alerted anywhere they happen to be and told to come in even during what is supposed to be their off time.  Alternatively, they may be told to check in on certain days to see if they are needed. Even if they are cleared for the day, however, the on-call system prevents them from commiting in advance to social and/or family plans.
Moreover, there is an “attendance program” that penalizes workers for not fulfilling their on-call duty. Each day they miss, they accumulate hours and points against them, and do not get a clean slate until a year from each missed day, which makes it very easy for workers to be plagued, at any given time, with “points against them,” with little or no hope of working them off unless they can go for years and years with no missed days. It does not even matter if the reasons for the missed days are legitimate and unavoidable by all reasonable judgement.
Despite this understandable concern, Tom Conway, vice president with USW International, states that neither the on-call system nor wages are emphasized in the oil strikes. The primary concern is safe staffing levels.
He explained, “We have people who are working eight, twelve, fourteen, sixteen continuous days without a day off on 12 hour shifts. And people are stressed with an amazing amount of overtime, fatigue, and sleep deprivations. It is dangerous. It’s a dangerous way to run an operation like a fuel refinery.”
The union also brings attention to the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks, and explosions that threaten local communities. Flagrant contracting out and replacement of qualified and experienced union workers, impacts health and safety on the job.
In an effort to reduce dependence on USW workers, plants have increasingly relied on contract labor from companies like The Wood Group, which provide labor on a temporary basis, reducing company obligations to workers. Because of the temporary nature of job placements, contract labor must frequently be taught to operate refinery equipment and several veteran operators expressed concern about the lack of safety standards from contract labor.
One worker on strike said, “the under-skilled labor they get to work for very little money can cause a lot of problems. It’s a volatile job. If people don’t know what they’re doing, and they turn a wrong valve, well, that’s it. I mean, that’s how that BP plant blew up. Since we’ve been gone, just in the past week, we’ve seen four ambulances leave here, carrying people out. We don’t know what the particular injuries were, but we’ve seen the ambulances leaving. It’s real hush-hush.”
The safety record of Texas industry is abysmal. EHS Today reports that nearly 5,000 workers die each year as a result of fatal occupational injuries in Texas. These preventable deaths devastate families and workplaces.
Four workers were killed in a crane collapse at the LyondellBasell refinery in Pasadena, Texas in 2008.
The aforementioned worker said he also saw someone get burned very recently, adding that, “most of the what happens is with contractors. At my plant, there are about 450 contractors. Unfortunately, they are in a position of having to do things in a hurry because their bosses are pushing them, and they have to jump on command. They have a lot of accidents. They are inexperienced. This [plant] might go up any minute [because of that]. The public needs to know that we are coming to work dealing with a time-bomb every day. That’s what this place is; that’s the nature of the business.”
One of the refineries under labor strike is Marathon’s Galveston Bay Refinery, formerly owned by British Petroleum (BP). The BP refinery had a large explosion that killed 15 workers. The Texas City refinery is the third largest refinery in the U.S. and is located at the world’s biggest petrochemical complex. An investigation by the People’s World, after the 2005 explosion, confirmed that safety procedures and practices had deteriorated after OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Board inspectors left the refinery and after the facility was sold by BP to Marathon Oil. This refinery reported a leak to regulators on Wednesday, Feb. 4.
In April 2005, OSHA cited the BP Texas City refinery and listed the BP Texas City refinery as a subject facility under its Enhanced Enforcement Program for Employers Who Are Indifferent to Their Obligations Under the OSH Act.
According to a recent Dallas Morning News investigative report, “Houston has the worst record in Texas, and Texas has the worst record in the nation when it comes to workplace fatalities or catastrophes.”
Photo: Jane Nguyen/PW