I spent the morning with United Steelworkers in Texas City in a forum organized by the Blue Green Apollo Alliance. Spent the night at Economy Lodge and there were funny smells in the air. Sigh.
The presentation rolled out by the Blue Green Apollo Alliance identified these problems:
- the US economy depends on oil
- the US is using more oil than we produce
- improvements are needed in the safety practices of oil production and refining
- the oil industry is a powerful political force, resulting in an unhealthy cycle of huge subsidies and lax regulation
And they proposed a suite of solutions:
- we can cut our consumption of oil in half
- we can ensure the oil we use is domestically produced and improve job security of US refinery workers
- we dramatically improve safety and health practices in the US oil industry
- the people we elect to represent us are committed to these ideals
In order to accomplish these things, there were suggestions of improving vehicle fuel standards, improving infrastructure for more efficiency, investing in transit options, and of course, smarter growth (courtesy of Agenda 21! just kidding).
We were asked to opine on the presentation, whether we agreed, disagreed, or had any further thoughts. We actually didn’t disagree with anything in the presentation, neither the facts of it nor the aspirations (Steelworkers: “Cut our consumption of oil in half? Desirable. Just not sure if it’s possible, or if Big Oil will let us do it.”) There were three similar events of this kind all over the country preceding our encounter, and the presentation changed after every presentation, so I’m assuming the content was perhaps more controversial at the beginning.
What I actually learned:
- Steelworkers are having a tough time building their own membership. Their coworkers are mostly conservatives. The USW consistently supports Democrats, so they’re having a rough time.
- Enforcement (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, EPA, any kind of state/federal regulator) only come around when they are called. They spoke frequently about more safety and more regulations.
- I could have guessed this, but contract workers are a huge problem. They aren’t as well trained, and in a dangerous line of work like this one, the consequences for not knowing how to properly operate machinery or troubleshoot safety issues are enormous.
- Deaths of contract workers in accidents do not count against “Safety Awards” given out by executives for no accidents. That is why the Texas City BP refinery had a “Safety Award for 4 years without an injury” in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007, even though the Texas City BP refinery exploded on March 23, 2005, and killed 15 workers.
- These companies cut corners wherever they can. They care about safety, as long as it isn’t expensive.
- These guys know solidarity. They’re going to protest at Costco to get them to pull Palermo’s pizza after Palermo employees tried to form a union and the managers promptly called ICE on them. (Saturday, August 25th from 10am-noon at 3836 Richmond Avenue, Houston TX 77027 if you’re interested).
- USW Local 13-2001 Vice President Mark Schubert, who was recently fired for statements he made at a new worker orientation, said this: “I’ve heard environmentalists belittle themselves. I have to say, that when I was growing up in the ship channel, I remember horny toads, fish, split-tail lizards… [I think that’s what he said, he was just listing wildlife]. Those guys were all gone for a while, but thanks to you guys, they’re coming back. And now maybe my grandkids will see them. And that’s really nice.”