A Houston Wobb’s Reflection on the USW Strike

This is a piece I wrote that was originally posted here on the Unity and Struggle blog.

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.


One thought on “A Houston Wobb’s Reflection on the USW Strike

  1. Really good to see IWW members exploring how the union can actively try to push the envelope of class struggle in the US – and also reflecting publically on how we can do it better next time. Hopefully this will inspire similar interventions, and reflections.

    Do you have any thoughts on how the IWW could have intervened in a more organized way in the national USW strike?

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