Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

From Our Readers: 1969 Richmond Oil Strike–An Analysis


First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. 7, No. 6, September 1970
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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From January to March, 1969 my wife and I were part of a collective of Stanford students and Palo Alto workers who went up to Richmond, California to support the striking oil workers there.

The strike began January 1, when over 60,000 workers nationwide and 3,700 in the Bay Area walked out on Standard, Shell and the other giant imperialist oil companies. At first the strike showed the workers’ militancy, with numerous instances of scab trucks being smashed by pickets and strong determination on the line to keep strikebreakers out. This was especially the case in California, in the area above San Francisco where both Shell and Standard have their refineries, and Standard’s subsidiary, Chevron, has its Ortho pesticide plant.

The Standard Oil Company, controlled by the Rockefellers, has a long history of violence against its workers. Earlier in the century an Eastern oil workers’ strike was broken up with burning gasoline! In the Richmond strike, the company had the courts, which it controls, issue injunctions limiting the number of pickets at a gate to five. The Richmond police, who also are working for the company, chased and beat up pickets and their wives who were picketing. Jake Jacobs, the Secretary-Treasurer of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Local 1-561 (OCAW) was beaten up in the Richmond police station when he went to bail out a union member arrested earlier in the day.

These confrontations with state repression helped pave the way for the entry of radical students on the scene. Many of the workers now realized that what students were saying about police brutality was accurate and correct. By a vote of three to one, the striking OCAW workers voted to have a “mutual aid pact” with the striking students at San Francisco State College.

Students had been going down to the picket lines since the beginning of the strike–mainly members and friends of the Progressive Labor Party from near by Berkeley. In the middle of January the collective that my wife and I belonged to became involved. This group was an off-shoot of the Peace and Freedom Party and was mainly led by members of the Bay Area “Revolutionary” Union (R.U.). In all, there were hundreds of students from all over the Bay Area supporting this strike, including members of most of the tendencies on the Left. National SDS even passed a resolution endorsing the boycott of Standard products which the unions had called for.

Nonetheless, despite the early courage of the workers, their militancy and anger, especially after oil worker Richard Jones was run over and killed by a scab at near by Martinez, and despite the presence of many outside supporters, the strike failed. The workers went back to work without the 72 cent an hour they were asking for and the Chevron workers, whose closed union shop was under frontal assault by the bosses, went back without a contract. The crucial issues of automation and some sort of hiring program for blacks was scrapped.

Why the failure? In an article in the April, 1969 Challenge which was written while the strike was still on, three obstacles were given to winning:
1. The enormous amount of automated equipment in the plant, which made it relatively easy for a few scabs to operate production.
2. Only 700 out of 1,300 workers in the Richmond plant were organized into the OCAW. Many of the others were in company unions or were completely unorganized. Some of these men and women stayed out in sympathy with the OCAW, but may others broke the strike.
3. The OCAW hadn’t had a strike since 1953. They were apparently unprepared for what was to come. And there was no rank-and-file caucus that might have prepared the workers for a long and hard struggle.

All three points, in retrospect, seem quite valid. In fact, despite the strike, many operations inside the plant were kept going by white-collar scabs and foremen. “Professionalism,” the attitude that a man is somehow better than an ordinary worker because he has a white collar job or a college degree, was a tremendous drag on the unity of the workers. It was very disturbing to see hundreds of workers cross the picket lines each day, the secretaries looking straight ahead with angry looks on their faces, the “junior executives” marching in single file with their uniform suits and briefcases. How incredible that these people, who would seem to have everything to gain by sticking with their striking class brothers, should be so divorced from the struggle!

What about the union? I have no first-hand knowledge of the union officials. I thought well of them at the time for “allowing” student militants on the picket lines. But in the last year or so I have become much more skeptical of all union officials. The fact is that despite the initial militancy of the workers the strike was weak. According to Bob Avakian, misleader of the R.U., “the main reason the students (were) allowed in was to bolster that weak position.” (The Movement, May, 1969)

But with 1,000 men out and hundreds of militant supporters, why couldn’t this strike be won? It is a troubling question, since many strikes will have to be fought in the future under less advantageous conditions. In addition to the points raised in the Challenge article it seems there were several more underlying reasons. The first problem seems to have been that the workers on the whole played according to the bosses’ rules. For instance, the court issued an injunction against having more than five union pickets at any gate. I think the workers should have ignored the injunction as soon as it was issued! They should have done the opposite, in fact, and massed their forces at the gates until the strike was won. Instead, however, the union honored the injunction. Without an understanding of the way in which the courts and the whole state apparatus serve the bosses as a class, and without a militant leadership willing to put that understanding into practice, it was impossible to win the strike.

Instead, help was sought from outside. Often without realizing it, we students substituted ourselves for the workers. A typical incident went something like this: Four or five union men plus fifteen or twenty students marching in a circle in front of a gate. A company car or truck pulls up and tries to crash the picket line. Several students smash the car’s windows with rocks and sticks. The students responsible split; the police cars come racing up, seconds later, with sirens screaming and lights flashing. After one of these episodes I heard a middle-aged worker say, “Boy, these students really mean business!” Where was he when the action took place? On the sidelines, warming his hands by the fire!

Perhaps these “students” were actually young workers with long hair, as Avakian suggests in his article. I know very well that in many of these incidents the most active forces were the students and not the workers.

Not that the workers couldn’t be militant when they chose to be. Many incidents throughout the strike illustrate that. Nonetheless, in the long run I think the student participation in this strike lowered the level of militancy of the mass of workers rather than raised it. A worker might very well reason, “With all these student militants out there willing to get busted, why should I risk my skin?”

More and more, students seemed to take the lead in actions on the line. One night a company goon squad beat up a couple of pickets with chains. The next night a mass mobilization was held to wipe out the goon squad. We gathered in the union hall, over a hundred of us, the workers in hardhats, the students in campus riot gear. By the end of the evening, however, we were down to a few dozen, most of us students, marching around in a driving thunderstorm. I knew most of the people on that line. I know that they were fine and dedicated people. But they were mainly students and outsiders, not oil workers.

Many similar instances could be recounted. Despite good intentions on the part of most students and outsiders I think the leadership of the strike passed from the mass of workers themselves to a few militant unionists, some trade union officials and a few radical leaders. Avakian himself writes, “as we became more familiar to the union leadership... they began to rely on us for help in the strike, to the point of plotting strategy...”

From the start, then, the union lacked rank-and-file leadership. The opening of the strike saw an upsurge of workers’ militancy. This was countered with the bosses’ repression, including the killing of one striker at Martinez. At this point, student participation became a significant factor, This took the form of large numbers of students, from different groups and backgrounds, walking picket lines as well as a strategy-level alliance between the local union officials and leaders of the Revolutionary Union.

Did this lead to success? No. By April the strike had collapsed. A union local in El Segundo, Calif, settled with the company for an inferior contract. This helped break the morale of the workers at Richmond. Although the workers voted to continue the strike by a narrow majority the minority went back to work anyway, triggering an end to the entire strike.

Avakian, in his article, lays most of the blame for this failure on the representative of the OCAW International union. We should never underestimate the trickery of these piecards, but to place all of the blame on the International is wrong. The basic reason for the failure of the strike has to be found inside the local and not outside. For why didn’t the striking workers throw off the corrupt union when it stood in the way of their victory?

The local leadership (i.e., of the union) was not willing to “say ’screw the International’... To continue the strike under these circumstances would have meant deepening the alliance with the Third World Liberation Front at S.F. State and going all out to link up with the student movement and, even more important, with the black, liberation movement,” said misleader Bob Avakian.

Notice the emphasis on the local union officials and the outside forces: nowhere is there a mention of the critical weakness in the organization of the oil workers themselves. Clearly what was needed was a militant rank-and-file caucus which would have been willing to say not only “screw the International” but also “screw the local leadership” and to win the majority of union men to their position.

The local leadership was clearly bad because for years it hadn’t actively tried to organize workers to fight speed up, automation and company harassment. In 1968 the union “failed to rally strong support for a wildcat walk-out... which erupted when a militant young worker was fired. The wildcat ended in the firing of 27 militants who went out in solidarity with him,” Avakian noted. That is, at best, weak leadership, and at worst, a sell-out. Avakian is blinded to this because of the chummy, privileged position he enjoyed with the local union officials. But workers will never win strikes against imperialist giants with leadership like that!

At the time of the strike I thought I was contributing towards building a worker-student alliance. In one sense I was. My wife and I got to talk to some workers on the picket line. We helped write a leaflet explaining why we as students supported the striking workers–we have the same bosses, suffer the same police oppression, etc. This helped us to clarify our own reasons for being there and seemed to be of some interest to the workers.

In looking back, however, the bad aspects outweigh the good. For instance, we were never encouraged by our leaders to make personal, lasting contacts with the workers. There was a distinct feeling that that was to be left to the “leaders.” As far as I know, of the twenty people in our group only the R.U. members made such lasting contacts.

Nor were we even introduced to other student and movement leaders–Avakian, for instance, although many such opportunities occurred. We were bodies on the line, delivered from the top. Very little discussion of strategy or tactics, or news of the progress of the strike, went on. This is probably the same way many rank-and-file workers felt in relation to their union leadership. Avakian writes, “Many students who turned out for the mass mobilizations did return in smaller groups and spent considerable time exchanging experiences and political ideas with the oil workers.” I don’t think this was the experience of the Palo Alto collective. Too much conversation was with other students and not many opportunities for serious conversation occurred on the line. It was a good feeling to help the workers, or even to get a smile from them on a cold, rainy morning. It was the beginning of our concrete understanding of the potential power of the working class. But for all that it was not a worker-student alliance.

A worker-student alliance cannot be formed between students and union bureaucrats. The labor movement in the United States is in bad shape. It must throw off the entire AFL-CIO stranglehold and regenerate itself. The postal workers and the teamsters have begun to show the way that might be done. The L.A. teamster wildcat strike is entirely rank-and-file organized and rank-and-file run. Their headquarters are in one hotel room, and from this room they direct a strike of 14,000 men which has practically shut down business in the nation’s second largest city. The leaders of this strike are black, brown white; Arab, Christian and Jew.


If the teamsters’ rank-and-file organization would ally itself with the Left instead of with the government or its labor lieutenants, that would be an opportunity for a genuine worker-student alliance. But an alliance, speaking theoretically of course, between Frank Firzsimmons or Ted Merrill, the L.A. Teamster piecard, and SDS would hardly be a worker-student alliance. If the student movement is looking for friends in the labor movement it had better look to the rank and file and not to the phony misleaders.

Second, a worker-student alliance cannot be formed between rank-and-file workers and student leaders. An alliance is more than a pact to deliver so many bodies at a certain place and time. It must constantly strive to bring more and more students in contact with workers. This is best done in small groups–not just on picket lines, but in parties discussions, dinners, picnics, etc The two groups must strike roots in each other’s soil, friendships must form, struggle must take place. This is a primary job and is just as important as winning a particular strike or pulling off a big demonstration.

(A longer analysis of the so-called “Revolutionary” Union will appear in an upcoming issue issue of Progressive Labor–Ed.)