A Houston Wob’s Reflection on the USW Strike

Unions’ power is in decay and lately have been resorting to more creative methods in order to remain relevant. We’ve seen the Democrats putting their money behind the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight For $15 in Houston at the same time attempting to “turn Texas blue.” But this dependency of unions like SEIU and the United Steel Workers (USW) on the Democratic Party means they are severely limited in what they are willing to do in the realm of tactics. This along with union density being sharply in decline, as well as union power being undermined by Right-to-Work spreading to states like Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, means the unions are not up for waging anything close to a class struggle. Instead unions like the USW maintain their position as representing only certain interests and timidly bargaining around them.

Texas, like other Right-to-Work states, has a working class that is almost entirely disconnected with their own fighting traditions. There is no real culture of workers resistance, union or not, nor is there any historical memory of fighting strikes. However, recently in Houston we have seen a few significant developments unfolding in labor starting with the immigrant rights movement and detention center hunger and labor strikes, the Maximus Coffee strike and lockout at the end of 2013, the ongoing Fight For $15 “movement” and its semi-annual spectacles, and the most recent and equally significant, the USW refinery strikes. These developments are very exciting for Houston not simply because of the lack of historical memory of struggle to draw from, but also due to the high density of industry in Houston which is unlike most of the country.  This makes Houston a critical choke point for US capital and thus pivotal for workers struggle nationally.

Maximus Coffee, originally Maxwell Coffee, under current ownership has suffered a 25-50 percent pay cut, seen the removal of overtime pay, the reduction of their 401Ks, and a decrease in health benefits all before the strike started. Roughly 90 percent of union workers went on strike at the end of 2013 which ended essentially as a lock-out, removing the union from the plant.

Houston’s remarkably large industrial sector provides a lot of semi-skilled labor opportunities and has been instrumental in Houston’s ability to float the crisis better than most of the country. This and the extremely low levels of reproduction of the class, especially of black and immigrant people who make up the unskilled, low-wage, and casualized sectors of the economy. This leaves refinery work to be primarily composed of white and US-born Latino workers.

When the USW strike started it was the first strike the refineries and their workers saw in 30 years. Yet the USW was unable to carry out a successful strike nationally or locally. This is due to union decline mentioned above, but also because one-third of the oil industry is unorganized (many of which are contract workers). Also, the relationship between the USW and the Obama administration impacted the overall strategy of the strike. Only 5,000 workers were pulled out, a mere ten percent of all union workers, while local union leaders claimed this was part of their strategy. Overall this affected only about 20% of production which is pretty insignificant and we realized quickly that most workers had little to no information about the strike or negotiations. Locally the USW’s timidness looked like a handful of workers carrying signs at each gate while being unable to block scabs from crossing, or from even standing or parking on company property. The international didn’t even use their massive treasury to support their striking members.  It was clear that the USW was not in a position to be able to wage a political struggle against oil because they are beholden to the ruling party.

At the time that the refinery strikes started in Houston, the local IWW had been going through a new incarnation. It has been very difficult to organize an active IWW local largely due to the low morale in Houston around workplace struggle as well as due to a small (yet growing) left. The local not having any real organizing experience together meant that disagreement over orientation to the strike diminished our ability to intervene on a more coordinated level. The disagreement generally fell into the difference between passive and active support. Those who were in favor of a more passive approach would participate in picket duty and coordinate with USW staffers to bring beverages and to plan some disruptive actions that could not be associated with the USW nor their membership. There was also an assumption that because of the political conservativeness of the workers there would be no basis to fight together.

Those looking to participate in more active forms of support wanted to prioritize having conversations with the rank and file, relationship building, learning about conditions in the plants, trying to gauge the mood of the strikers, and most importantly trying to find a way to practically throw down with workers instead of symbolic solidarity consisting of holding signs and such. The pivot of this approach was meeting one worker that we will call Trey. Trey was a union steward and pro-union, yet he was at the same time critical of the union and its tameness in regards to strategy and tactics. He was a self-proclaimed conservative yet he was open to principled political debate and the idea of a cross-industry network that used direct action. It was his own openness to other approaches and his relationship to the rank and file that allowed us to explore building an independent struggle that could put the rank and file in control of their own strike. This would be the basis for workers of different political stripes to come together on practical terms, leaving open the potential for political unity to emerge from concrete experiences.

USW strikers on picket duty needed to be completely off the property and constantly moving and not blocking traffic.

One of the most exciting potentials to emerge from our relationship with Trey was the discovery that Madicorp was providing temporary workers and other strike breaking resources (i.e. security) to the refineries; the same Madicorp that was contracted to send security forces to Ferguson to help put down the rebellion. At the time Ferguson was still on everyone’s minds and in Houston we had been involved in organizing Ferguson solidarity actions. Through this we had helped solidify a majority black, anti-police group that was beginning to transition into community organizing efforts. Many of these Ferguson militants came out to the picket lines to engage with and support the rank and file workers. Because of the discovery of Madicorp’s involvement in both strike-breaking and in putting down a black rebellion in Ferguson there was a potential to concretely link the black struggle to the industrial worker’s struggle: Madicorp could be a target for both USW rank and file as well as Ferguson militants. Yet, because of our inability to coordinate within the IWW we were unable to respond to the moment and the moment passed us by.

As Wobblies we are thinking and rethinking workers struggle constantly. As of now there is no real workers struggle, only moments. The potential that emerged from the USW refinery workers strike could have meant a shift in what kinds of activity the IWW participates in locally and nationally. As of now the majority of active Wobblies are involved in organizing individual workplaces and while workplace organizing is undoubtedly important, we are not always in a position to provoke struggle so we are also thinking about other ways to organize. Along with workplace committees we are interested in experimenting with solidarity networks, general milieu-building, collaboration with groups, strike intervention, and so on, and the potential for engaging in strike intervention that overlaps with black struggle could have put a lot of these strategies to test. Yet now that there seems to be a sustained black movement emerging in the United States, we believe the potentiality for overlapping sectional struggles will emerge.

7 thoughts on “A Houston Wob’s Reflection on the USW Strike”

  1. So you talked to one guy, got a piece of information from him, had an idea to maybe do something with it, but didn’t. Then you conclude: “The potential that emerged from the USW refinery workers strike could have meant a shift in what kinds of activity the IWW participates in locally and nationally.” Isn’t it a bit of a stretch?

    If a 13-year-old virgin wakes up with a hard on and an image of his chemistry teacher comes to his mind, can he then refer to his lonely morning wood as a potential for a long-term relationship?

  2. Wow, Solomon, we really appreciate the thoughtful engagement here. Very thought-provoking and bound to produce fountains of rich conversation. Could you maybe just have asked how many people we had conversations with and more details about why it didn’t go further? Because we would be more than happy to without the extra helping of insults. I couldn’t help but notice that you followed up in the early hours to see if your wonderful Socratic wisdom had been published yet. Talk about morning wood, homeboy.

    Are we even now? From here forward I’ll leave out the sarcasm. Maybe let’s pretend we’re nice people now chatting face-to-face. Let’s hug it out, bitch.

    We went to the picket lines multiple times and spoke with as many workers as we could. The problem was manifold. One, we also work and have families and lives and were relegated to going late at night, sometimes 10pm, 11pm and way into the early morning hours. Two, though there were several thousand USW on strike, even with multiple gates there would only be 2-3 picketers at a time which limited the amount of people we could talk to at once. We did prioritize Trey because he was somewhat critical, open to new approaches, and had currency with other members he could potentially influence. So it was a quality over quantity approach, but honestly by accident because we did want to make contact with many others. We drafted up a flyer and handed them out, but it was really the conversations that built things.

    Three, and this is something we did mention, it was usually only 2-3 of us who went a time, again because our branch was immobilized by disagreement. The first night, we brought about a dozen people from the anti-police brutality milieu, 90 percent of which were young, Black folks completely disconnected from the strike. Nonetheless, the ranks were really happy to see people they had no relationship to come out to support them.

    We talked on the phone with Trey several times and he fed us info about Madicorp. They were really rich conversations actually because he was trying to navigate the line between loyalty to the USW as a formal grouping, but also the need to do more than just hold a sign and defer all decision-making to the local and international. He was really honest with us and brought up the idea of us doing direct actions against a specific member who scabbed and was basically organizing other members to do the same. We said that while we think it’s a good idea, we didn’t want to be the foot soldiers of the USW and that it would have to be a mutual effort; that’s the only way to build solidarity. We talked about the ways in which unions will often use “activist groups” to do their work for them but then dissociate from it when it becomes public. He completely agreed with that.

    The contact was intermittent because Trey was working another full-time job so that he could keep up his picket duty (the USW did not use their treasury to fund strikers, only very small symbolic shit). Pretty quickly, the plant he worked for struck a deal and they went back in.

    We did meet another worker at another refinery who was similar to Trey, tactically open, but different in the sense that he was more politically Left. Interestingly, Trey’s conservatism wasn’t a problem at all because he wasn’t dogmatic and he believed we needed to build a fighting force across ideological lines.

    We maintain contact with the refinery workers in the hopes that future events can re-energize and strengthen the ties we made there. We also hope that the newest development inside the Houston IWW will allow us to have something more organizationally and tactically coherent.

    Did we do everything right? Of course not. Could this have been a totally wasted effort? Perhaps, in the short run there was little practically to gain. The intangible benefit was some conversation and clarification on how do you unite opposed sections of the class beyond propaganda efforts (viz. “workers of the world unite!”). The Madicorp connection was the red thread and if had been better organized, had responded quicker, etc., we might have been able to do a campaign around Madicorp itself that linked rank and file USW with Black youth protesting the police. We could have done actions outside their offices, try to disrupt their ability to break the strike, etc. In the long run, who knows, maybe the contacts we made can parlay into a workers network of sorts. We hope.

    Having said all this, do you have any constructive critiques, suggestions, other questions? We put this up to get engagement from other folks doing similar work, not to tell other to bow down to our amazing shit. I think we were pretty honest about the limits of it. lol. I mean, nothing concrete emerged from it. What we can say?

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