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.
Reaganomics, the plot to appease the rich and condemn the rest, got its comeuppance last week in President Obama’s State of the Union speech.
The President asked: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?”
That’s the trickle down economy he’s talking about. And when he said, “spectacularly well,” that understated the great fortune of the very few. Oxfam, the international federation working to end poverty, reported just before the speech that if nothing changes over the next two years, the top 1 percent will hoard more wealth than that held by the entire remaining 99 percent of humans on earth.
President Obama made it clear he has no intention of accepting such economic damnation for the vast majority of Americans. He proposed an alternative to Ronnie’s scheme. President Obama called it middle class economics. Though its intent is to create opportunity, prosperity and security for the working poor and middle class, it’ll be a hard sell. That’s because Americans have been force fed that voodoo, greed-is-good, grovel-before-the-rich financial philosophy for so very long.
Instead of the plodding turtle he's normally satirized as, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is all cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof about Trade Promotion Authority, better known as Fast Track.
He said as Congress convened this month that he wants to fast track Fast Track. He intends to ’git ’er done so fast no one notices that with it, Republicans will provide, as McConnell put it, “an enormous grant of power. . .to a Democratic President.”
Fast Track is nothing more than Congress pulling a fast one on the American people. It’s a plan for lawmakers to abdicate their Constitutional responsibility to regulate international trade. With Fast Track, Congress shirks its duty to subject trade deals to lengthy line-by-line scrutiny, fulsome public hearings and amendment.
While gratifying Wall Street and multinational corporations, past Fast-Tracked trade deals have battered American workers as factories fled off shore, wages stagnated and layoffs multiplied. Fast Track is an outmoded strategy for indolent politicians. Workers in the 21st Century deserve in-depth deliberation over trade proposals to ensure jobs, the environment, food safety and national sovereignty are protected. Mitch needs to back track on Fast Track.
The jobs report Friday set off cheering: a quarter million positions added in December; unemployment declining to 5.6 percent. This good news arrived amid a booming stock market and a third-quarter GDP report showing the strongest growth in 11 years.
It’s all so very jolly, except for one looming factor: wages. They’re not rising. In fact, they fell in December by 5 cents an hour, nearly erasing the 6-cent increase in November.
Hard-working Americans need a raise. Their wages are stuck, rising only 10.2 percent over the past 35 years. Workers are producing more. Corporations are highly profitable. CEOs, claiming all the credit for that as if they did all of the work themselves, made sure their pay rose 937 percent over those 35 years. That’s right: 937 percent!
It doesn’t add up for workers who struggle more every year. Something’s gotta change. The AFL-CIO is working on that. It launched a campaign last week to wrench worker wages out of the muck and push them up.
America just celebrated the season of giving with Hanukkah and Christmas presents, year-end charity donations and soup kitchen volunteering. It is a time when Americans demonstrate the generosity, caring and kindness that define them as a people.
Now, however, Americans may suffer the season of GOP taking. Republicans already insisted on taking away a key protection in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Now they’re intent on taking health insurance from millions of Americans who got it under the Affordable Care Act.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a manifestation of Americans’ concern for each other’s welfare. Americans felt it was intolerable for so many of their friends, neighbors and relatives to be uninsured in the richest country in the world, to be bankrupted by medical bills, to die for lack of medical care. So they found a way to do something about it. That is the ACA. Among other benefits, it extends Medicaid and provides subsidies enabling the working poor to afford insurance. But the GOP is all against it. Republicans tried to repeal the law, appealed to courts to overturn it and refused its expansion of Medicaid. As they become the majority party in both houses of Congress this month, Republicans will intensify their campaign to take health insurance from millions who got it through the ACA.
Earlier this month, in the sparsely populated Kentucky county that’s home to Bowling Green, officials voted to convert the place into a right-to-work (for less) sinkhole.
The county officials did it at the bidding of big corporations. They certainly didn’t do it for their Warren County constituents because employees in right-to-work (for less) states get smaller paychecks than those in states that support the right to unionize. They did it at the demand of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heritage Foundation, both of which are corporate owned and operated.
They did it despite the fact that there’s no evidence they have any legal authority to create an anti-union bastion on the county level, which means they’ve subjected the residents of Warren County to substantial costs for a legal battle that Warren is likely to lose.
Moving right-to-work (for less) from the state to the county level is the latest tactic in the relentless campaign by CEOs and corporations to reverse gains made by workers in the 1930s New Deal. With laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress slightly moved toward workers the lopsided balance of power that heavily favors corporations. Over the next several decades, the middle class thrived and income inequality decreased substantially. Now, however, income inequality is back up to the point where it was in the robber baron days because CEOs and corporations have stuck their fat thumbs back on the scale.
Under billions of tons of imports, the American dream is suffocating.
The American people have lost faith. They know that bad trade has bled factories, middle class jobs and wage increases from the country.
A report issued last week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) details how bad trade has cost Americans hope. And hope is the essence of the American dream, hope for a good, steady job with benefits and a pension, one that supports a family and a home, one that enables the kids to achieve even better lives. Bad trade has battered all of that. And more damage is threatened by pending trade deals and a so-called fast track process to approve them without in-depth deliberation.
Holiday bells are silent in the homes of America’s struggling working poor, even with gasoline prices at their lowest levels in years.
These are people derided as moochers because their starvation wages force them to accept food stamps to feed their children.
On the other side of town, inside gated communities where guards demand photo ID even from Santa, CEOs’ Christmas plums are super-sugared with record-breaking corporate profits.
These are people somehow not derided as moochers, even though their million-dollar pay packages are propped up by tax breaks.
The parable of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” springs to mind as Wall Street banks and law firms hand out six- and seven-figure year end bonuses while Walmart and fast food workers protest wages so low that their holiday meals are food pantry dregs. It is CEOs, not the working poor, who deserve public scorn for their dependence on government handouts.
At the first Thanksgiving 383 years ago, Native Americans and Pilgrim immigrants gathered with mutual respect to share a bountiful harvest they’d produced together.
This Thanksgiving, though, there’s no respect or sharing in the homes of GOP nativists.
Suffering amnesia about their personal histories, nativist Republicans want to expel the 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants, the people who harvest America’s Thanksgiving vegetables and care for America’s toddlers and grannies. The GOP has threatened to sue, shut down the government and impeach President Obama to punish him for issuing an executive order giving fewer than half of the nation’s undocumented workers a limited ability to remain in the United States.
Americans would prefer if Congress fixed this problem. But Congress hasn’t. In the year and a half since the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill, House leaders have refused to permit a vote on it. So now, President Obama, like all 10 presidents since 1956, Republican and Democrat, has issued an executive order on immigration. The order says America will treat 5 million striving unauthorized immigrants with respect.
At a chemical plant called Point Pleasant in a town named Apple Grove in a state John Denver labeled almost heaven, a man known as Freel Tackett helped negotiate three collective bargaining agreements that provided raises and decent benefits for workers and retirees.
Heaven ended in 2007 for Tackett and other retired Point Pleasant workers. That’s when the corporation that now owns the plant betrayed them by refusing to continue paying the full cost of retiree health benefits. These days, it’s almost hell for retirees. For seven years they’ve lived under a dark shadow, as if Point Pleasant’s most infamous denizen, the monster Mothman, immortalized in the book and movie The Mothman Prophesies, had returned.
The United Steelworkers (USW) union told the U.S. Supreme Court last week that these workers had labored a lifetime to earn retiree health benefits. The court should forbid the company from rescinding earned benefits, the USW argued. The corporation, M&G Polymers, asked the court to validate its reneging on its pledge to workers because, it contended, the collective bargaining agreement is insufficiently specific. M&G insisted that vagueness gives it carte blanche to shift costs to workers.