Book Review: ‘Power Lines—Building a Labor-Climate Justice Movement’

Power Lines: Building a Labor-Climate Justice Movement, edited by Jeff Ordower and Lindsay Zafir (The New Press, 2024), 217 pp.

By Steve Early, Convergence (June 12, 2024)

A familiar scene played out in the city council chambers of Richmond, California on May 22, 2024. For the last 20 years, since members of the anti-Chevron Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) first got elected to the council, any measure before that body affecting the city’s largest employer and business tax payer has been hotly debated.

Local environmental justice organizations, like Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) mobilize their working-class members to attend and sign up to speak during the time allotted for “public comment.”

 To rebut the resulting complaints about pollution and arguments for stronger health and safety protection, the $290-billion company that operates Richmond’s massive 122-year-old refinery deploys its own defenders. They include refinery managers, public affairs people, leaders of non-profit groups funded by Chevron, and leaders of conservative Building Trades unions, which represent workers employed by contractors for the oil industry.

The latest battle lines have formed around a proposal to impose a new excise tax on fossil fuel products from a facility that generates, according to one RPA analysis, about $2 billion a year in profit for the company.

A refinery tax?

This Richmond Refinery Tax Act, proposed by two RPA leaders on the council, would generate an estimated $100 million a year for programs serving the city’s 110,000 residents. Chevron’s current annual tax bill is about $50 million, providing about 15% of Richmond’s total tax revenue. But the city currently faces a budget shortfall of $34 million in the next fiscal year.

Speakers for and against the measure packed the council chambers that Tuesday night in May. Among those in favor was Sandy Saeteurn, a Richmond resident and APEN member. She accused Chevron of “continuing to pollute our air, our environment, our health” and argued that the tax hike would “make sure they’re investing in our city, investing in our residents, and the future of our community.

Many other community speakers echoed her comments, but Chevron spokesperson Caitlin Powell countered them in a written statement. Powell called the refining tax “a hasty proposal, brought forward by one-sided interests,” that would hamper the company’s ability to “to create a better quality of life for Richmond residents.”

 Organized labor spoke, per usual, with more than one voice. Harry Baker, representing Service Employees Local 1021, which has a Richmond city hall bargaining unit, told the council that “we strongly support the polluters pay initiative. It’s not just a plan. It’s a necessity.”

Timothy Jefferies, representing the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, weighed in—as the building trades unions invariably do—on the company’s side. “We’re not against clean air,” Jeffries explained. But he argued against any hasty action on the proposed ballot measure because voter approval of it might adversely affect refinery jobs and all the other economic benefits that Richmond “enjoys because of those jobs.”

Adversaries to allies

Richmond’s latest controversy involving Big Oil—and its local friends and foes—reveals the main political divide explored in the anthology Power Lines: Building a Labor-Climate Justice Movement (New Press, 2024). The collection began as a project of The Forge and was compiled by former Forge editor Lindsay Zafir, now academic director of Leadership for Democracy and Social Justice at CUNY, and Jeff Ordower, North America director for 350.org, It brings together more than a dozen case studies of environmental justice campaigns which have grappled with the challenge of enlisting labor allies and overcoming union objections to reducing fossil fuel extraction, transportation, refining, and use.

The editors call them “spark stories—from the front lines of the climate crises” that can help other organizers figure out how to bring workers and communities together to build “the movement and power we need to win a just transition” that will benefit us all.

Their contributors include “blue-green” coalition builders like Norman Rogers, second vice-president of United Steel Workers (USW) Local 675 in southern California, Jose Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance (JTA), which has been trying to bring union members and environmentalists together since 1997, and Tefere Gebre, former executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, who now works for Greenpeace,USA.

Other voices in the collection hail from North Bay Jobs With Justice, APEN, CBE, the Bay Area-based Climate Workers, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, state-level or multi-state groups like Native Movement, Climate Justice Rhode Island, Good Jobs, Clean Air New Jersey, and the Center for Coalfield Justice, and the national networks such as the Green Workers Alliance,  Labor Network for Sustainability.

Not all of these projects have survived the fickleness of foundation funders or the shifting winds of union politics. Brooke Anderson, a former organizer for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, spent five years nurturing Climate Workers, a cross-union, rank-and-file formation of mainly low-wage workers backed by the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project. Summing up the lessons of that experience, she describes how hospitality workers and port truckers “who had contributed the least to ecological erosion and had the least resources to shoulder a just transition were asked to sacrifice the most to make their industries more ‘sustainable.’”

In her chapter, Anderson recounts one victory of particular significance, locally and nationally (although it remains subject to litigation).  This was the labor-community fight against a coal export terminal in Oakland. She writes:

“When it was proposed, many in labor deferred to the building trades, which supported the project. However, once unions with members in the path of the coal trains—often lower-wage, Black and Brown members—spoke out against the project, it put labor’s position back up for grabs. We eventually moved much of labor to oppose the terminal and the city of Oakland, followed suit, rejecting the proposal.”

Asian-American activism

In Power Lines, well-deserved attention is given to APEN, which has rallied Richmond residents against Chevron for three decades, from its base among Laotian refugees and other Asian-American immigrants. Ordower and Miya Yoshitani provide a useful overview of this organizational history; the book also features an interview with APEN co-director Vivian Yi Huang and Amee Raval, its research and policy director, conducted by Yoshitani, who was APEN’s long-time executive director

As noted by Ordower and Yoshitani, APEN has had some success building relationships with oil workers in Richmond who are direct employees of Chevron. Their USW Local 5 represents workers at several other refineries in Contra Costa and Solano Counties. In the last decade, it has struck two of them, including Chevron’s facility for ten weeks in 2022, the longest walkout there in 40 years. During each of these national or local contract fights, local environmental justice groups joined strike picket-lines and rallies, with Greenpeace even deploying several protest boats around Chevron’s mile-long pier on the Richmond shoreline.

After the dispute ended, Local 5 vice-president B. K. White and four co-workers were fired, in retaliation for their strike activity and White’s aggressive public advocacy for refinery safety measures.  While negotiating a settlement of his discharge case, White decided to retire from Chevron, after 29 years. He took a new job as public policy director for Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez, the longtime Chevron critic now pushing for a “polluters’ tax.” According to the mayor’s chief of staff, Shiva Mishek, White’s role in the mayor’s office is “to help us lead ‘just transition’ work and support union labor and workforce development in Richmond.”

An adversarial relationship

As Ordower and Yoshitani report, environmental justice groups like APEN have had “a more adversarial relationship” with conservative craft unions which, in 2015, even blocked a Contra Costa County Labor Council resolution in support of Local 5 strikers at a refinery in Martinez, CA. They are affiliated with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (SBCTC), which speaks for 500,000 workers.  Its affiliated unions often back management positions on refinery expansion or taxation, undercut campaigns for workplace safety led by the USW, and resist stronger environmental protection for “frontline” communities.

The longstanding rift between the two wings of refinery labor—and the fifth column role played by the trades–is recounted in my book, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City.   It was on dramatic display several years ago when the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the powerful industry lobbying group funded by oil and gas companies, held its annual policy and strategy meeting at a swank beachfront resort in Orange County. The two-day event featured a keynote speech by then State Building Trades Council leader Robbie Hunter, president of Iron Workers Local 433 in Los Angeles.

As a fellow presenter at the conference (on a panel about the concerns of refinery neighbors), I saw Hunter get a standing ovation for his lunch-time address to several hundred oil industry managers and contractors, lobbyists from Washington and Sacramento, and friends in the state legislature. The labor leader spent nearly an hour praising Big Oil and ranting about the “enviros and NIMBYs and all the usual groups that just say ‘No’ to everything” that leads to more hiring of building trades members to do refinery maintenance and modernization work.

According to Hunter, Richmond was ground zero for such obstructionism because its “city council got taken over by people who didn’t reflect the community.” As a result of this political shift, he reported, Chevron is now constantly assailed by “groups with an activist agenda” who are “looking for any excuse to shut down these plants.” He pledged that his organization would continue to work with Chevron so it remains “the neighbor the city wants.” (For its part, WSPA has joined the opposition to Richmond’s proposed ballot measure, arguing that “any additional local taxes or regulatory programs could make [Chevron] operations more challenging and expensive, which could lead to higher costs at the pump for all.”)

An oil worker’s concerns

Norm Rogers is another southern California union official who has had to address rank-and-file concerns about the impact of refinery shut-downs—but in a different way than Hunter. As he explains in a chapter called “The Dream and the Nightmare,” 4,000-member USW Local 675 “is very much tied to its history as a local under the former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers” that was aligned with the late Tony Mazzocchi,  a pioneering labor environmentalist and job safety advocate who served as national secretary-treasurer and legislative director of the OCAW.

Local 675 joined a union coalition called California Labor for Climate jobs which, according to Rogers, “successfully lobbied the state for a $40 million fund for displaced oil and gas workers a $20 million fund for displaced extraction workers.”  At Marathon Oil, a Local 675 employer, an on-going “conversion to renewable diesel has already resulted in significant job losses…which is especially challenging for older workers who are too close to retirement for retraining.”

The funding obtained from the state is designed to support laid off workers, where possible, through retraining programs, plus early retirement and wage replacement, and other services. Yet, as Rogers suggests, this is little more than a pilot project in light of California’s plan to reduce crude oil production to 166,000 barrels a day by 2045. 

“Currently, my refinery alone produces 360,000 barrels a day,” Rogers reports. “Refineries across the state produce more than one million barrels a day. The plan that’s currently in place doesn’t fully address how we could reduce production so dramatically or what the consequences of doing so would be—including loss of union jobs.”

By grappling with realities like this, Power Lines helps deepen the debate about how to unite and fight for a “Green New Deal”—or any better deal than the status quo, which will leave millions of workers at risk in the hottest summer ever in the U.S. As Power Lines contributor Todd Vachon points out in a similar book, Clean Air and Good Jobs: US Labor and the Struggle for Climate Justice (Temple University Press, 2023), creating “a pro-worker clean energy economy” requires turning “just transition” rhetoric into reality, on a much larger scale. If most fossil fuel workers believe they will end up on the trash heap—like underground coal miners or rust belt factory workers before them—business unionists will have little trouble rallying them, in Donald Trump fashion, based on that fear.

Rather than becoming allies in the fight for a stronger social safety net for displaced workers and a sustainable future for all of us, they will, in a fashion very familiar in Richmond, be mobilized by their own unions and employers to protect the power and profits of corporate America.


Steve Early served as an International Representative and organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years before writing five books about labor and politics. Among them are Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press, 2017) and Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs, co-authored by Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven (Duke University Press, 2022). He is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

Convergence is a magazine for radical insights. Convergence produces articles, videos, and podcasts to sharpen our collective practice, lift up stories about organizing, and engage in strategic debate — all with the goal of winning multi-racial democracy and a radically democratic economy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *