By Mark Friedman
Across the country for years, the issue of health and safety versus jobs has been one that has unnecessarily divided labor organizations from their natural allies in the community and environmental movements — whether it be the chemical leaks at Love Canal, the nuclear meltdown at 3-Mile Island and marine protected areas versus commercial fishing, water contamination in Flint, Mich., or now the Torrance refinery explosion and potential toxic gas leaks.
Regardless of whether we work for a refinery, on the docks, in an office, school, small business or are a community resident, we must take the moral high ground for health and safety. We cannot counterpose jobs to health and safety nor maintaining a healthy environment for humanity. We must join together to force the refineries to institute whatever safety measures the community and union health and safety committees collectively decide are necessary to protect us all.
We as workers, with or without a union, need safety committees to protect us on the job from the bosses’ shortcuts, which over the past several decades have significantly worsened conditions on the job, resulting in the spike of deaths and injuries. No worker must die on the job! Unions must take the lead in joining with community residents and environmental organizations such as the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance to ensure that no worker or community resident gets sick or dies from an explosion or accident at any of the refineries. Management will try to coopt labor, saying that it is too costly for them to provide the necessary safety measures demanded by the community and environmentalists or that they will lose their job and livelihood. This is a lie.
Oil refineries and the corporations earn billions annually. They pay refinery workers higher wages due to union strength making them aristocrats within the labor movement. Safety committees on the job in refineries and other industries have been eliminated and weakened and often unable to institute protective measures for their own members.
We working people recently won a victory in stopping the frame up of ranchers in Oregon and Nevada orchestrated by Democratic and Republican state and national politicians and the FBI. However, we lost the battle over stopping the Dakota pipeline when victory was within reach. Big money won out over the interests of indigenous peoples, residents, labor and environmentalists. A broad coalition had been constructed, but was disbanded by the anti-Dakota pipeline “leaders” to pursue legal action instead. The lesson of history is that the courts will never defend our rights without massive pressure on them. This is the history of the labor, civil rights, women’s, environmental, immigrants’ and gay rights movements.
Time after time at the Torrance Air Quality Management District hearings, representatives of labor said that the companies could not pay for safety systems and the plant would be shut down or there would be job loss. That argument, however, is the bosses’ argument and we cannot fall into their trap of thinking of ourselves as part of their “family.” They do have the money to ensure safety of workers on the job. That is why we have union safety committees. The community must actively demand that.
And it will be up to us, workers and safety committees to form an alliance with the community to enforce safety measures necessary to protect us all. Management will always cut back on safety and seek shortcuts only we know the results. The massive oil leak called New Horizon, the Exxon Valdez accident, etc. or they will consciously denigrate the environment such as what happened with the Montrose chemical plant and resulting cleanup settlement.
Our demands need to be clear. Safety on the job and safety for the community; no job loss, no layoffs; full pay for all workers at union wages during shutdown and conversion to the safest refining processes. Unionize all refinery subcontractors to ensure compliance. Health and jobs are not counterposed but are part of the fight to unify us, organize the unorganized and rebuild the labor movement.
I urge all Random Lengths readers to join the rally and march to ban toxic modified hydrofluoric acid at 10 a.m. Feb. 17, at Columbia Park, 4045 190th St. (190th St. and Prairie), Torrance. Details: TRAASouthBay.com.
Mark Friedman, a veteran trade union and environmental activist is organizer of a Cuban marine science educators’ delegation coming to California.