What’s the price of killing workers? After a 2013 fire killed two workers at its Beaumont refinery, Exxon was “punished” with a $616,000 fine and the tab for new town fire truck. That year, its profits hit $20.8 billion.
In the 1954 race for Texas governor, the corporate powers were panicking. It looked like the incumbent–oily, right-wing millionaire Allan Shivers–might be upset by his union- endorsed rival, progressive firebrand Ralph Yarborough. To portray the sheer awfulness of that possibility, the moneyed interests had bought TV airtime for The Port Arthur Story, a political ad (running 12 minutes!) that played like a docudrama, with voice-of-doom narration. Thus, television sets across the state were soon afire with an alarming piece of raw fearmongering, linking Yarborough to a “communist dominated plot” by “eastern and northern” labor bosses to “invade [and] …take over Texas industry.”
Along with Beaumont and Orange, Port Arthur is one of three small industrial cities deep in the southeast corner of Texas that the Chamber of Commerce touts as “The Golden Triangle.” The label refers to “black gold”–the toxic crude oil refined here by the multiple sprawling and spewing factories of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other global petrochemical giants. At the time, the Triangle was also a stronghold of union organizing and progressive activism. And that’s the horror the TV ad played on:
“A year ago, [Port Arthur] was a thriving city,” the narrator solemnly intones.
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“Today it is deserted. Children don’t play anymore. Women don’t shop. …Nobody smiles,”he declares as the camera pans across closed shops on eerily empty streets.
“Nobody knew it was coming, but it did, as it can come to your town, Anytown, Texas. …They give no warning. You don’t realize the importance of it all until it happens. Then it’s too late.” The ominous “it,” he reveals, is a “foreign invasion of grasping control,” including union-organized African-Americans, led by “out-of-state CIO labor leaders [who] poured into Port Arthur … to personally supervise the death of a city.” And Ralph Yarborough, the ad explains, is “right in bed with them.”
Over the top, no? You might find it hard to imagine that any strong, self-respecting Texan would be hornswoggled by this obvious Chicken-Little nonsense. But as we’re witnessing today, such incendiary political fabrications can spread like wildfire and burn truth to the ground. That’s what happened in 1954 Texas when the state’s Shivers-supporting newspaper establishment eagerly picked up the ad’s story, ran with it as factual, and stoked statewide fearmongering. Believe it, editorialists exclaimed, because there’s proof of the horrific tale of economic strangulation you can see with your own eyes: The empty streets of Port Arthur!
Only after the election, which Yarborough lost by six points, was the real reason for those deserted streets revealed: The ad was filmed at 6 a.m. on a Sunday.
Even though this particularly stinky combination of labor demonization, mass political deceit, and election thievery by Texas corporate elites occurred decades ago, it still stings many Lone Star unionists and progressives who carry on the fight for working people’s rights, battling those same plutocratic forces of repression. Indeed, although the incident happened way before my politicking days, I had often heard the story, and this summer it suddenly came back to me as I was making the long drive from my Austin home right into the heart of the Triangle.
The Beaumont Story
I was headed to a labor event, and parallels between that old fearmongering corporate political ploy and the focus of my trip sprang to mind. Beto O’Rourke and I were on the way to Beaumont to rally with members of the United Steel Workers (USW) at their union hall and then proceed to the front gate of ExxonMobil’s massive oil refinery (North America’s largest) in a show of support for a USW picket line.
This was no ordinary picket. Just like 1954’s moneyed interests, today’s Exxon executives had ambushed Golden Triangle unions. In a little-reported maneuver, they launched a crude attack this spring on the Steelworkers, attempting to bust the union, disem- power the middle-class workforce, and entrench corporate autocracy in the oil industry. What’s occurring in Beaumont is not a union strike, but a corporate lockout.
Exxon’s contract with the union was set to expire in May, but the company met USW’s attempts to negotiate a new agreement prior to the end date with cold recalcitrance. Union members were not even proposing increased pay or benefits, but were primarily seeking greater plant safety. Turning oil into gasoline, kerosene, and other combustibles is an innately dangerous process exacerbated by US refineries’ notorious shortchanging of worker protections. Deadly fires, toxic gas releases, explosions, etc., are not uncommon, and a 2013 fire that killed two workers at this very plant is still fresh on the minds of union negotiators.
It quickly became apparent that this contract was not in the hands of Exxon’s local managers, many of whom have amicable relationships with workers, for they are neighbors and even family members. Rather, it was the aloof top executives at faraway corporate headquarters who were directing the stonewalling and adamantly demanding that USW accept contractual concessions that would undermine both safety and job security. Refusing to cave to this outrage, the union proposed a one-year extension of the old contract so that negotiations could continue. Then–BAM!–Exxon slammed the plant’s gate shut, locking out more than 650 refinery workers. Making the slap in the face even more stinging, the gate-slamming took place on May 1, International Workers’ Day!
The union has since made several rounds of proposals to restart bargaining, but the corporate hierarchy has refused even to discuss them. So, this story is not only about injury but insult: A calculated disempowerment of and disrespect for Exxon’s workforce. One measure of the executives’ disdain for the USW members who make their products is referring to them not as people, but as “headcount.”
Although a lockout is legal under weak US labor-protection laws, the practice is a grossly unfair act of corporate truculence and a crass anti-union, anti-democratic power play. It says that if corporate bosses can’t win all they want at the bargaining table, they can simply expel their employees, taking away their jobs, income, health care, and other benefits. Lockouts are designed to squeeze the economic life out of workers–and their families–and force them to accept a raw deal.
But wait, there’s more! To tighten the squeeze, bosses can bring in non-union, unskilled, low-paid replacement workers, thus temporarily maintaining a flow of product and profits. Meanwhile, to sow dissension, management can distribute materials that encourage workers to decertify (i.e., disband) the union. In their Beaumont lockout, Exxon executives have done both.
As I write this, USW members have now been out of work for more than three months. What does that mean to a person, family, community … to a union? In fact, what is a union these days? The public mostly sees it as a wage-bargaining and political organization. But O’Rourke and I got a glimpse of the human side of “labor action” during our brief visit, and it seems worth sharing the experience with you. We got to personally witness the move in movement.
Just walking into USW’s hall, as we did in June, gives a palpable sense of real “union spirit.” It’s not some “Solidarity Forever” sing-along, but something genuinely uplifting. Hundreds of everyday people uniting in a pragmatic, cooperative effort, pulling together to do the organizing work required to gain a measure of control over their own economic destiny and resist the selfish arrogance of powerful bosses.
A union hall is basically a big meeting room, and the Steelworkers have converted theirs into a full-fledged grocery store stocked with items from jars of roux (this is, after all, Cajun country) to packages of Oreos (lockouts are hard on children), fresh and frozen veggies, assorted meats in cold lockers, cleaning supplies, and other basics. When most people think of union activism, they think pickets and rallies, not groceries. But “lockout” is short for “no paycheck,” and for workaday families, that means dire shortages as the weeks go by, so union spirit means stepping up with essentials.
USW’s pantry was set up and is overseen by Nikki Hill. Known by all as “Miss Nikki,” she’s a third-generation union refinery worker and a no-nonsense, get-it-done organizer. To convey a bit of normalcy and respect for the folks who need assistance, she has arranged the space like a market rather than an emergency food shelf. Also, it’s run literally as a family operation: She and her husband Everett, also a Local member, are usually there to greet shoppers and keep things flowing, while the younger of their six kids work shifts to stock shelves, bag groceries, and assist the hundreds of people who count on the pantry.
"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower
The goods here are free, though many people contribute what money and volunteer efforts they can. Miss Nikki and crew are also super shoppers for the cause, clipping coupons, searching for sales, arranging food donations, negotiating with store managers for wholesale prices, and generally producing a lot with a little.
Which raises another fact that establishment forces don’t want us thinking about: The very idea of having and joining unions is popular and widely considered essential to help counter the corporate greed ravaging America. Moreover, as is happening in the Golden Triangle, local people will actively support local labor struggles. Small businesses in particular are more often than not willing to help out underdogs in a fight, which they’ve done with USW’s pantry. Why? Because (1) these businesses are small, too, often getting run over by big conglomerates, out-of-state banks, and chains; (2) they personally know–and might even be kin to–Miss Nikki, “Hoot,” “Pup,” and other union leaders and members (note: nicknames are popular in the Triangle); and (3) those 650 union families are a core part of their customer base–while Darren Woods definitely is not.
Who is Darren Woods?
CEO of ExxonMobil, the third-biggest private oil corporation in the world, Woods reigns over Exxon’s global empire from a luxurious corporate compound hundreds of miles from Beaumont. He has practically no personal contact with locals–and even less in common with them. For example, while Beaumont families are hooked to the fuse of that huge, ticking refinery, Darren and his family need never give a thought to his own executive suite exploding in a chemical fireball. Thus, the faraway chief of this $181 billion-a-year behemoth has no qualms decreeing that state-of-the-art safety devices and procedures are too costly an investment.
Then there’s job performance. Since Woods took over as CEO in 2017, ExxonMobil’s income, profits, and stock prices have tumbled. Yet under today’s corporate ethic of institutionalized inequality, the captain (unlike the crew) no longer goes down with the ship. To the contrary, Woods has prospered extravagantly:
2017. Even though Exxon’s stock price fell by 14%, Woods reaped hikes of 20% in salary and 50% in bonuses, to take home $17.5 million in total pay.
2018. He got another nice bounce, banking $18.8 million.
2019. This was a bonanza year for the chief, whose personal pay was jacked up to $23.5 million.
2020. Even when Exxon’s revenue plummeted by 30%, Woods grabbed a $16 million payday.
Here’s one guy, siphoning more than $75 million in personal pay for just four years in the executive chair.
Now in 2021, under shareholder pressure to goose up Exxon’s bottom line, the multimillionaire CEO has a plan: Take the money from the needs of rank-and-file workers. And if his lockout ploy breaks the USW at the oil giant’s biggest US refinery, he’ll be emboldened to try decertifying the union. That would free Exxon to slash wages, benefits, safety protocols, and other labor costs not only in Beaumont, but also at its unionized facilities across the corporate map. In turn, along with safety, billions of dollars would flow from the pockets of working families into the coffers of the wealthiest shareholders–a group that, not coincidentally, includes Bossman Darren Woods.
If you wonder why inequality keeps spreading in our superrich country (and if you wonder why more and more working people say that “Boss” spelled backwards is Double-S-O-B), Darren Woods is your poster boy. Are power elites like him so obtuse as to be unaware that America’s workaday majority sees their naked greed, or are they so grasping that they just don’t care? Either way, that greed, that constant grasping by the few to take more from the many, is what USW’s ongoing defiance is all about–and that’s why its significance reaches far beyond Beaumont, is bigger than Exxon, and affects more than the labor movement.
I saw that spirit–an intense combination of anger, pride, indignation, unity, and determination–in the eyes of those union families I met in the food pantry and on the picket line. Those potent, deep emotions have propelled many progressive political rebellions, and–bringing our story full circle–that’s exactly what The Port Arthur Story spurred in Texas in 1954. That ad’s cynical manipulation of the electorate was the final political straw for many workaday progressives who were routinely run over by increasingly arrogant and abusive establishment forces.
For example, the media powers at the time didn’t stoop to cover progressive issues or actions, and they mostly ignored or openly mocked progressive candidates. (When Dallas’s major newspaper overlooked a Yarborough rally that drew some 3,000 people, progressive imps invented an irreverent slogan for the paper: “The Dallas News–If it happens in Dallas, it’s news to us.”) Rather than whine, though, a broad-based people’s movement came together that same year to create its own statewide news outlet, The Texas Observer. One of the first independent, alternative papers in the country –and still going strong 67 years later–the publication connected and rallied the diverse and widely dispersed community of progressives across this huge and complex state.
Moreover, the movement–led by unions, trial lawyers, civil rights groups, women, students, and crusty old populist agitators–got serious about grassroots organizing. Activists ran political training sessions, created inner-city block captain networks, paid the poll tax for poor voters (yes, back then you had to pay today’s equivalent of $15 to vote)–and they put forth capable, unabashedly progressive candidates for office. Lo and behold, the movement started gaining power, electing the indefatigable Yarborough to the US Senate in ’57 and, during the next decade, putting such people’s champions as Henry B. Gonzales, Barbara Jordan, Bob Eckhardt, and Sissy Farenthold into top offices.
What happened then is what has to happen again: A grassroots- based awakening across our country that things will not get better for workaday people by waiting on change, but only by openly declaring “no more,” and then aggressively organizing and mobilizing our majority to unify and go on the offensive against the plutocratic forces of insatiable greed. That’s the message of those gutsy USW families who are now writing The Beaumont Story. And the best news is that there is an encouraging resurgence of such labor activism and success erupting in hundreds of workplaces across America–maybe even where you live. As with the Exxon lockout, most of these local struggles for workplace fairness get little to no media coverage. There are even fewer media attempts to report on the scope and significance of what looks to be a profound shift in how ordinary people think about and act on the potential for collective action to counter corporate hegemony.
ExxonMobil has cut off the paychecks of its Beaumont workers, but we Lowdowners can show the company that it can’t cut support for the workers or ignore their insistence on safety and job security. The Texas AFL-CIO has set up a donation page for the locked-out workers and their families. All donations go directly to helping pay for food, water, and necessary supplies. See: actionnetwork.org/fundraising/donate-locked-out-tx-usw/
Since 1954, The Texas Observer has focused its independent, probing journalism on “communities whose stories are too often ignored or poorly told.” Over the decades, its fearless investigations have not only won national accolades, but made a difference in the lives of many working-class Texans. (Hightower did a stint as Observer editor back in the ‘70s.) Check out the paper’s current stories at texasobserver.org.