Community-Union Collaboration in California Beats Oil Refiner’s Divide-and-Conquer

Community and union groups in Richmond, California, have notched two victories against oil giant Chevron, but not before the company worked hard to pit them against other.

Environmental justice organizations won an appeals court decision in late April that blocked the company’s bid to process dirtier, heavier crude oil at its Richmond refinery. And in May, the company agreed to withdraw its bid to drastically cut city utility taxes, a proposition that would have drained $10-$25 million a year from the cash-strapped city budget and resulted in mass layoffs and cuts to public services.

Instead, faced with mounting pressure from community groups and unions, Chevron ultimately committed to paying Richmond an additional $114 million.

Chevron’s strategy was to set workers against low-income communities of color, playing on Richmond’s desperate need for jobs and tax revenue. The company hoped the two factions would sell one another out, trading health for jobs, increased revenues for increased pollution.

But through years of on-the-ground organizing, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Service Employees Local 1021’s Richmond chapter, and West County Toxics Coalition were able to bring community members and some workers together for a greener, healthier city with good jobs.

OIL ECONOMY

For generations, Chevron’s refinery has dominated this city of 100,000 just 20 minutes northeast of San Francisco. The refinery’s tax bill makes up 30-50 percent of Richmond’s general fund each year. And, with 2,700 workers, the refinery is Richmond’s largest private employer.

Chevron is also responsible for 90 percent of Richmond’s industrial pollution. Its smokestacks pump tons of toxics into nearby communities made up primarily of low-income people of color. Richmond children are hospitalized for asthma at twice the rate of children in the rest of the county.

The company has bought the silence of many residents, funding schools, health clinics, and nonprofits. As city finances plummeted in the recession, fear grew that Chevron could leave, a threat it’s more than hinted at in the past.

JOBS VS. HEALTH?

This fight began five years ago when Chevron submitted an application to the city to expand the refinery to process a “more varied mix of crude oil types.” Company representatives lied in talks with community groups, assuring them they would not be processing dirtier oil, even while crowing to investors that they would be doing just that.

But Chevron also failed to issue a plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, a basic requirement under California environmental laws. It released an Environmental Impact Report in 2008 and sought permits to move forward with its expansion. Community environmental justice groups sued.

The company offered the city a “community benefits agreement” that included $61 million to fund civic projects. Despite the testimonies of many residents concerned about increased air pollution in neighborhoods already suffering from disproportionately high asthma and cancer rates, the city council approved the project 5-4.

Chevron then took the reckless step of hiring 1,000 new workers for a project for which it had submitted a faulty environmental report.

When a court agreed the report was flawed and Chevron laid the construction workers off, the workers were rightfully angry. They had suddenly lost their jobs through a complicated legal process in which they did not participate.

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They directed their anger at environmental groups, inundating organizers with phone calls and working with Chevron’s lobbyists to hold press conferences. Steelworkers Local 5, representing the refinery’s operators, declined to take sides.

Luckily, one union stuck with the community coalition: SEIU Local 1021’s Richmond chapter, representing city workers. At rallies, city council meetings, and court hearings, city workers and community members exposed Chevron’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

“Chevron has used jobs to hold our communities hostage,” said James Walker, an SEIU member and equipment services worker. “As a Richmond resident and union worker, I shouldn’t have to choose between jobs and my family’s health.”

Of course, Chevron could have avoided the layoffs. Instead of spending millions on lawyers, the company could have come clean about its intentions and upgraded the refinery to reduce pollution. That would have created skilled jobs and protected the community’s health. Instead, the community-labor coalition had to wring out hard-won court victories.

WHAT’S FAIR IN ‘FAIR SHARE’?

Richmond’s Green Party mayor Gayle McLaughlin and supportive city councilors drew strength from the campaign’s momentum to take the company to task.

The city proposed a ballot measure this spring requiring Chevron to pay the same 10 percent utility tax as everyone else. The company had enjoyed a special annual cap on its utility taxes.

Chevron responded with a competing “fair share” ballot initiative: to cap its annual utility tax at $20 million, cut the tax in half for other residents, and eliminate it for low-income people and seniors. Chevron’s measure would have devastated the city budget.

So, after claiming to defend workers against community members, the company switched sides, seeking to mobilize low-income voters against city workers. Chevron threw lots of money at the initiative—paying canvassers $3 per signature—and banked on people’s thinking only about saving themselves a little money.

When community members showed they would hit the streets to expose Chevron’s dirty tricks to voters, the company settled with the city. Both parties withdrew the ballot measures, and Chevron agreed to pay the city $114 million more on top of its utility taxes over the next 15 years.

In Richmond and across the country, those committed to building deep community-labor coalitions are grappling with the tough questions that come with polluting industries. When jobs are pitted against health and stakes are high, how do we foster solidarity? How can community and labor groups create solutions so all of us win?

Last year, Richmond’s community-labor coalition voted out two of the five city councilors who approved Chevron’s expansion. This November, they hope their candidate will take out another one, and help transform this city into a green, healthy, and just community.


Marie Choi is a former communications consultant to the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and a former SEIU staff member.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #376, July 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.