In what may seem like an unlikely alliance, environmental groups are throwing their full support behind oil industry workers who on Sunday announced a widespread work stoppage over complaints that Big Oil companies "value production and profit over health and safety."
The strike, which marks the largest national strike of oil workers since 1980, was called by the United Steelworkers Union (USW) after negotiations with Royal Dutch Shell, which is leading the industry-wide bargaining effort, broke down.
"The oil companies do not want to work with us to improve the workplace and safety at oil refineries and facilities," said USW International vice president of administration Tom Conway in a statement announcing the strike. Conway said the problem is that oil companies "are too greedy to make a positive change in the workplace and they continue to value production and profit over health and safety, workers and the community."
Workers from nine refineries across the U.S. have committed to the stoppage and, so far, the strike has caused one refinery to suspend its operations—the Tesoro Martinez Refinery in Martinez, California. The strike has been called at five Texas-based refineries, two California sites, and one each in Kentucky and Washington state.
"Oil refinery workers are in the front line of protecting our communities against the environmental hazards of the oil industry."
—Joe Uehlein, Labor Network for Sustainability
Meanwhile, calls for solidarity have grown, particularly from the environmental community, which argues that workers who stand between the planet and the potential devastation posed by the fossil fuel industry ought to be valued and protected.
"So often as we fight Big Oil it can be hard to remember that the impacts of the industry and the fight for safer communities extend both inside and outside the fence lines," wrote David Turnbull, campaigns director of Oil Change International, in a statement of solidarity on Monday.
"This is a high-risk industry from cradle-to-grave and we are fortunate to have highly skilled professionals that do their best to prevent the worst," Turnbull added.
"Oil refinery workers are in the front line of protecting our communities against the environmental hazards of the oil industry. Their skill and experience is critical for preventing devastating explosions, spills, and releases," said Joe Uehlein, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS).
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This week, LNS issued an open call to environmentalists, climate activists, and other allies of organized labor to support the oil worker strike, saying that the laborers are fighting for "conditions that are safe and healthy for workers and communities" and that they deserve the support of activists and "everyone concerned about the rights and well-being of working people."
Steelworkers International vice president Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program, said that the stoppage is in part to protect workers and communities from the "dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore."
"It's a pattern we’ve seen again and again—oil executives prioritizing their own profits over the well-being of everyone else."
—Michael Brune, Sierra Club
Beevers continued: "This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it; the industry’s refusal to make opportunities for workers in the trade crafts; the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job; and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire."
"Oil companies have created conditions that endanger not only the safety and health of their own employees, but that of nearby communities," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. "It's a pattern we’ve seen again and again—oil executives prioritizing their own profits over the well-being of everyone else."
Advocates note that many of the issues being fought for are symptoms of an energy industry bent on exploiting volatile and polluting fossil fuels at the risk of public health and planet.
"We look forward to the day when energy industry workers are able to focus on safer, just, and more stable jobs in a clean energy economy and aren’t tied to the profiteering whims of big oil," said Turnbull.
According to Uehlein, the plight of workers—including those employed by the oil and gas industry—should not be separate from the broader goals of those who campaign for social, economic, and climate justice. In turn, he argues, organized labor must recognize its shared interest with those vying for a healthier planet. "As we work to protect the earth from climate change," he said, "it is particularly important that we advocate for the needs of workers in fossil fuel industries whose wellbeing must not be sacrificed to the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."