On 14 March 2015, two dozen rank-and-file railroad workers, as well as nine refinery workers who had recently been on strike, gathered in Richmond, California for a conference with the purpose of building bridges with ecologists, especially given the recent spate of oil train derailments and explosions.
So how did it go?
Hieronymous, one of the Empire Logistics organizers, wrote the following report back:
Speaking only for myself and only for the event in Richmond, California, it was a pretty amazing convergence of industrial workers from various nodes on the energy supply chain -- with some very insightful discussion and tentative proposals for possible future collaborations.
There were 25 railroaders in attendance (a couple of whom are retired), from all over the U.S. (e.g., Northern California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Utah and Washington), representing engineers, conductors, and a machinist on the four major U.S. Class I railroads (BNSF, CSX, NS, UP), as well as on Amtrak.
There were 9 refinery workers, which included a carload of 4 who drove 400 miles from the Tesoro Refinery in Carson, CA to attend the conference. The others were most from the nearby Tesoro plant in Martinez. All these previously striking fellow workers were acknowledged as the proceeding began.
There were ILWU longshore workers from Seattle and the Bay Area. There were a handful of maritime workers from IBU-ILWU in the Bay. There were a few other industrial workers, from various sectors like electricians and power plant workers. There were a couple first responders, but it was unclear whether they worked in the public sector or for private companies. Most of the rest identified as environmentalists or concerned citizens, regardless of how they sell their labor power (or sold it, as a few were retired).
One oil extraction worker from Alberta, active in indigenous struggles in Canada, came to Richmond and later headed to the Olympia conference.
Altogether, about 125 people attended the conference and during the introductory session came up with goals around building solidarity between supply chain workers and communities affected by the transportation of hazardous materials (the list of which goes well beyond fossil fuels, to include highly toxic chemicals like chlorine, fracking component Beta Pikaline, Hydrogen Cyanide, etc., etc.).
During the introduction a railroad militant gave an explanation of why Railroad Workers United exists, a brief history of North American rail labor, and a short account of the recent victory against the single employee crew tentative agreement -- which received a standing ovation. It closed with an appeal for RWU to take the offensive in the fight for safety together with communities along the rails.
The workshops were as follows:
Railroading 101, which discussed:
- • the successful fight against single-employee crews, beginning a discussion from the audience about experiences of relying on a fellow crew member during emergencies, as well as how the accident in Lac-Mégantic occurred after a single-crew member went off shift
- • a thorough presentation (using visual images with excerpts of a PowerPoint) was given of the science of fatigue, due to irregular schedules and lack of proper sleep; when the question of this situation was thrown to the floor, oil refinery workers explained that their safety concerns were 100% identical, made worse by enforced overtime; also from the floor, a power plant worker said her sector had the exact same issues around fatigue -- and safety -- as the other two sectors; it was a pretty amazing confirmation of how dangerous management practices has made industrial and transportation work, using the exact same methods of disruptive work schedules
- • also speaking from the floor, an Amtrak conductor related how fatigue, due to irregular scheduling, hit her "at home" and completely disrupted not just her own life but that of her family as well. It was one of the most profound moments of the conference; during later breakout discussions at the tables, she and other railroad and industrial workers recounted tales of divorces, inability to attend family events due to arbitrary work schedules, latch-key kids, broken homes, injury and addiction, etc., etc.; it was gut-wrenching
Energy Supply Chain Inquiry workshop by the Empire Logistics/Supply Chain Group:
- • the group facilitated an interactive presentation that analyzed the strengths and strategies of workers in different sectors of the supply chain, how they can support workers in other sectors -- using specifically the sectors involved in oil production from the recent refinery strikes. After discussion with breakout groups, possible strategies of other energy supply chain work sectors reported back from this solidarity thought-experiment activity
- • a brief history of the Empire Logistics project was given, delineating its roots in Occupy Oakland and our attempt to critique the anti-capitalist implications of the mass port shutdown on November 2, 2011 (the so-called "general strike")
- • the inquiry activity was set up by inviting one of the Tesoro Refinery workers, who's from USW Local 675 in Carson, CA and had just ended their strike days before, to give an overview of the issues behind the strike -- which were safety concerns nearly identical to those of railroaders
Tables were tasked to be hypothetical workers in one of the following energy supply chain sectors:
- 1. Refinery/pipeline workers
- 2. Railroad workers
- 3 Truckers
- 4. Maritime workers
- 5. Oil extraction workers
- 6. ?
The last one, #6 was a mistake because it broke down into a near argument about consumption, with many of the liberal environmentalists wanting to reduce the whole production chain down to a question of consumer choice. Thankfully an Empire Logistics presenter foreclosed a debate and assigned one sector to groups of 2 tables.
Empire Logistics provided facilitators to most of the tables to discuss the following questions in a structured activity:
ENERGY SUPPLY CHAIN INQUIRY:
Refinery Worker Strike Solidarity Workshop
1. What role does your sector play in the energy supply chain and how does that affect the impact of your proposed action?
a. What are the strengths of your location in the chain that can maximize the effectiveness of solidarity actions?
2. What information do you need to plan and execute your action?
3. How does your sector overlap with other sectors to possibly draw them into a larger action?
a. Give examples of ways your action could involve other sectors?
4. What actions can you do that stay within the constraints of the law?
a. What are the risks of going beyond the law? What could make them worth the risk?
5. What should outsiders (“the community”) know about your sector in order to support your struggle and take actions in solidarity with your action?
Most of the conference attendees were game for such a brainstorming activity, but as mentioned before some more mainstream environmentalists had never thought in systematic terms, let alone tracing any commodity back to the point of extraction, processing, production, or even transportation. Some got it and it seemed like an light bulb went off in their heads. They eagerly wanted to report-back with their new insights at the end to the entire assembly. Parts of the process were magic.
Here's what we documented on a whiteboard from report-backs:
It was a pretty amazing activity, despite our crew not being prepared for such a large crowd. Should we do the workshop again, we will give much a much clearer explanation of how our goal was to brainstorm innovative tactics of cross-sectoral solidarity, as well as the fundamentals of how an energy supply chains functions, from extraction through a variety of processes to consumption.
Some of the other workshops later in the day were on "Solutionary Rail," a proposal for electrifying rail lines in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Environmentalism 101 and Political Ecology 101. Empire Logistics co-facilitated the latter and guided into more breakout groups to discuss possible collaborations between workers in struggle and ecologists. The latter was set-up with brief overviews of the alliance created when Judi Bari from Earth First! helped organize a timber worker local of the IWW in 1989. Other examples were given of workers preventing the demolition by explosives of Candlestick Stadium in San Francisco, providing work for a slower process of non-toxic removal of the entire structure. Again, breakout groups pondered ways to bridge the working class and environmental concerns, with mixed inspiring and disappointing results.
Right before dinner, we created four affinity circles to discuss possibly building a network around railroad workers and affected communities, as well as strengthening connections made during previous workshops.
The affinity clusters were:
- • railroad issues
- • organizing down supply chains
- • community struggles
- • environmental concerns
The first two were quite fruitful discussions, with many connections made for possible future working class collaborations. The latter two were kinda duds, dominated by mainstream activists who want to write letters and lobby elected officials, as well as stay fixated about "dirty" commodities, but only from the point of consumption -- the gist of the conference not having had the slightest influence on a tiny minority of these hardened liberals.
But the most inspiring result was the initiative from the indigenous oil extraction worker from Alberta, Canada. No sooner was the conference over, than he was calling his contacts in Lac-Mégantic proposing doing a similar conference there. Other suggestions were Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston -- and any other place where there's a confluence of energy supply chain workers and physical infrastructure, meaning rail, ports and refineries.
One more account, from the RWU co-chair:
The first convention was amazing! It takes me a long time to write.. So I make my report video here..