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Fourth International, September 1948


John Fredericks

Oil and Labor

III. Role of the Trade Union


From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.7, September 1948, pp.201-204.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The article below, dealing with the role of the trade union in the oil industry, concludes the study of the oil industry. Part II, published last month, analysed the economic structure of this industry, setting forth the case of Standard Oil Co. as a classic example of monopolisation, with its concentration of capital and swollen profits. Especially noteworthy is the close alliance of Government and private industry in the formulation of oil policy. Part I of this study, published last May, was devoted to an analysis of the process of production in the oil industry. – Ed.

* * *

The centralization of the means of production is but one side of the coin; the other is the socialization of labor. In analyzing the role of the trade union we are confronted with three facets of the problem:

  1. the Oil Workers International Union, CIO;
  2. the “independent” union, and
  3. the social conceptions of the oil worker.


The history of the OWIU has yet to be recorded in all its stormy detail. From the facts available, the earliest efforts to organize the oil workers took place under IWW leadership through the Marine Transport Workers in Galveston, Texas. In the East, various crafts had been organized from the birth of the industry, such as carpenters, teamsters and construction workers, but there seems to have been no attempt to organize oil workers on an industrial scale until 1917.

At that time spontaneous action by oil workers in coastal gulf cities and in the new fields in California led to the establishment of the International Association ol Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America, AFL (1918). At their first convention in El Paso, Texas (1918), the union had five locals in Texas and 16 others scattered through California, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The union reached a peak of membership in 1921 with 24,800 members as a result of organizing drives during and following World War I. However the anti-union wave that followed the war, and the inability of the AFL bureaucracy to combat it, reduced the union to a total membership of only 300 in 1933.

The CIO, only 2 years after the failure of the AF’L, organized 42,800 workers. Following the general pattern of other CIO unions in the Rooseveltian era, the growth of the OWIU was rapid and in many respects haphazard. Its first constitution shows traces of radicalism as evidenced by numerous references to “class solidarity,” “labor is entitled to the full product of its toil.” and so on. But there is no doubt that in building the entire International union from raw material, untrained in the traditions of unionism, Rooseveltian conceptions gained great headway.

Contrary to legends of the backwardness of Southern workers, the oil workers in the South and the Mid-West showed little hesitancy in joining the union. One after another the big oil companies were brought to their knees and forced to sign union contracts.

The days of the Roosevelt administration, when a union election could be obtained at the drop of a hat, and easy victories were possible under the Wagner Act, led the new union leadership to become soft and overconfident of government support in contract negotiations. Moreover, it is not unusual to find today’s union president becoming tomorrow’s plant superintendent, and vice versa.

The top International leadership is composed of “old timers” who have built a solid bureaucracy. The average union official and the hired hands of the International are usually “Johnny-come-lately’s” in the union. These people understand nothing of the class forces behind a trade union. Inability to readily obtain company consent to a union election or to obtain formal recognition from the government and the operators is a signal for them to abandon the struggle and move elsewhere. The union leadership simply has no stomach for militant economic action, even with the unanimous backing of the rank and file.

Yet it was the “54-40 strike” of 60,000 workers in the oil industry after V-J Day that set the postwar strike ball rolling and established the 18½ cent wage pattern which was accepted by the rest of the CIO. Again in 1948, this time without a strike, the oil union has attempted to set a wage pattern lower than the goal set by the CIO, settling for 8%.

The union leadership inserted into its 1946 contract a provision for a sliding scale of wages to meet the increased cost of living, but the effect has been to use this clause to prevent strikes. The industry has been periodically granting increased wages to union and non-union employes indiscriminately, every three or six months.

2. The “Independent” Union

A notable exception to the organized shop – Standard Oil of N.J. – has been widely discussed in leading capitalist journals, such as Fortune, as the outstanding example of “industrial harmony.” (Thirty Years of Industrial Peace, Fortune, Nov. 1946.) It represents a curious anomaly and is in seeming contradiction to the value of unionism. Let us have a closer look.

The history of labor relations at Standard Oil stems back to the infamous Ludlow Massacre, which scared Rockefeller, Sr. into an attempt to prevent similar outbreaks. As the result of the experience in the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. plan of employee representation, Rockefeller set up an employee representation plan at his Bayonne, N.J. refinery in 1918. The object was to prevent unionization of the workers by a real union. Whenever the bona-fide union in the field obtained better wages or conditions, the company union of Standard Oil met them and sometimes gave the workers even better conditions. This company union continued successfully from 1918 to 1934, when such company unions were declared illegal.

With the advent of the Wagner Act, the “unions” of Standard Oil were ordered to dissolve. After several quick changes in their constitutions and the holding of democratic elections, the Standard Oil unions passed muster as a genuine bargaining agency with the NLRB. However, each unit of the company had its own union and in no two plants were the workers affiliated with each other. The following is a picture: of the situation in 1946:

55 “Independent” Unions


35,884 members

  6 CIO locals

353 members

  4 AFL locals

455 members

  1 Railroad Brotherhood

30 members

The CIO locals operate in Montana refineries, in a coke plant in West Virginia and a bulk plant in Detroit. The AFL operates in the Baton Rouge plant but, as can be seen from the foregoing figures, almost all the workers voted for the “independent” union. The industrialists brag about this state of affairs as clear proof of the superiority of their type of “worker benefits” over “high dues” of the established trade unions. To believe the explanations and record in Fortune, they would seem to have an un-beatable plan; That 93% of their veterans returned to the company after military’service is claimed by them as proof of the superiority of their system. Yet the hopes they nurse are illusory.

The attitude of the workers in the plants is of prime importance. They know that without the existence of the OWIU their standard of living would fall far below the average for the rest of industry.

Still, the very existence of the “independent” unions is a challenge to the trade union bureaucracy that they have as yet been unable to solve.

3. Social Conceptions of the Worker

A worker who has spent many years in the Texas oil fields and who is familiar with the industry in everyday life reports:

Working conditions in the oil refineries today are probably the best in the nation. This is caused by a number of things:

  1. The refineries are almost completely automatic, not because the companies are interested in making things easier for the men, but because temperature control is of primary importance in making good petroleum products. Automatic instruments are the best means for doing this. The installation of instruments did not replace men but on the contrary created a need for more men with technical knowledge. Instruments fail quite frequently, especially during rain or electrical storms, and at such times it is of great importance to have plenty of trained men on the job who can detect the trouble immediately and correct it. An operator may not do anything for several years, but a moment’s work at the right time will save the company enough money to pay his salary for thirty years ... With the new refineries comes the utilization of by-products, formerly considered waste. Increased knowledge of hydrocarbons and the utilization of butylene, formerly a nuisance, for synthetic rubber has greatly increased company profits.
  2. The percentage of income going to the worker is the lowest in any industry – about 6% – while in the auto industry it is 45%.
  3. The present tendency is to keep on hand a large “technical force.” In many cases the refiners have a larger technical supervisory and foreman force than they have workers. There are many reasons for this. The company believes that a “title” will inspire the oil worker to think he is better than other workers and therefore “part of management.” This lessens the interest of such workers in the problems of their class. The company can also maintain that these workers do not come under the collective bargaining agreement. Since oil refineries entail such technical work as is connected with automatic production, it is easy for management to maintain this fiction. The most recent trend has been to make stillmen [1] a part of management. Stillmen were for many years the backbone of the union and leaders of the community. Now as technical men and part of management they have no voice in the union, are on a monthly salary, and work many extra hours overtime without pay. The union leadership has failed to put up a real fight for these men or to counteract this type of union-busting upgrading.
  4. Maintenance crews are much smaller than before. With increased technical knowledge the companies are going in for what is called preventive maintenance. Maintenance crews have been greatly reduced. The company is assisted in this process by the reactionary AFL craft union leadership. It has become the practice to hire AFL construction men to replace CIO maintenance men. The oil workers see their jobs being abolished with no protest by the CIO leadership and are consequently transferring to the AFL to keep their jobs. The AFL maintains closed-shop conditions for their men and hiring halls for building-trades workers. These circumstances divide the workers in the plants and impair their bargaining strength.
  5. The unions maintain no educational system of any kind. The companies take advantage of this by having excellent propaganda departments of their own which point out the, “advantages” of “free enterprise,” and do their best to destroy the union.
  6. It should be noted that the oil industry operates on a 24-hour basis. The bosses are notoriously averse to spending the wee hours on the job. Even among the lowest brackets of lieutenancy of the boss class this aversion to night work is evident. As a result, during the best part of two shifts (16 hours) the control of the plant rests largely in the hands of its operators, “assisted” by supervisors who succumb to the general aversion and spend as much time as possible doing nothing. Since shift workers rotate, it thus comes to pass that practically all of the workers of a typical plant are used to the idea of operating the multimillion dollar plant without the tender ministrations of “supervisory personnel.” The typical refinery (and the typical chemical plant) goes blithely on its way under the care of the workers regardless of the presence of bosses. Often the individual oil worker is quick to realize that both the supervisor and the absentee owner are of no practical value in the process of production, and he is not averse to making this observation out loud in more heated moments. It would be no trick at all to continue operation without the bosses and owners. The workers in the refineries and chemical plants of the South are aware of their power and I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised to find them among the leaders in the establishment of workers’ councils at the proper moment.

Since most of the oil refineries are located in the South it is natural to expect that a large percentage of the workers in these plants would be Negroes. The Negro workers in this industry are subjected to the same degrading, discriminatory practices that are to be found in most other plants, plus those special discriminatory Jim-Crow practices that are reserved for Southern Negroes. Generally speaking they are relegated to the dirtiest, most menial tasks in the plant. Nevertheless the Negro worker is the most militant and best union member to be found in the plant. The union itself does not tolerate Jim-Crow practices.

As regards the stupid legends that gain wide circulation concerning the “backward character of Negroes” and the alleged likelihood of Negroes becoming strikebreakers, a white Southern oil worker makes the following comments:

I know of case after case wherein not only did the Negro not need white leadership, but actually led white workers in militant strike action. I can refer you to the organizing campaign of the Steelworkers at the American Rolling Mills in 1946, when the AFL crafts took over completely, except for the Negro group in the plant who held firm and eventually carried the plant for USA-CIO. Again, in the organizing drive of “Operation Dixie” at the Southern Acid and Sulphur Plant early in 1947, the unshakable bloc of CIO-committed Negroes broke the AFL counter-offensive to bits. In the defeat of the Steelworkers at the Hughes Tool Co. two years ago, the Negroes were the last hold-outs. Again in the creosote plants, now entering the OWIU fold in Houston, Texas, the Negroes were their own inspirers.

Two contradictory manifestations stand out in the foregoing reports. One, the reactionary conceptions of the labor bureaucracy, which, in this case, parallel those of the “independent” company-union men. The other – and of greater importance – is the advanced social conceptions with which the workers in a semi-automatic industry become imbued. As our worker-reporter revealingly puts it:

Often the individual oil worker is quick to realise that both the supervisor and the absentee owner are of no practical value in the process of production, and he is not averse to making this observation out loud in more heated moments.

In a critical situation this awareness of their power will readily lead to revolutionary action by the oil workers. What is going to be decisive in a big forward movement is not the backward section, but the most advanced group in this industry. Those who after V-J Day set the pattern for the entire labor movement will not buckle to the pater-nalistically-minded. On the contrary, it is they who will lead, while the latter will be those who follow in the general stream.


The discoveries in the oil industry point inescapably to vast changes in the social organization of labor. To give an example: As a small part of the problem of refining, the petroleum engineer was forced to develop an automatic oiling device which feeds any amount of oil to moving parts of machines. If this device, plus automatic oil controls already developed, were to be applied to the boiler room of an ocean-going liner, the need to employ a black gang would be almost eliminated. There is no engineering reason why a gang of men should have to work below decks in the heat of the boiler room, oiling, wiping, firing boilers and such work. When oil industry machines and controllers are applied to the maritime industry, the black gang will be either forced out of the industry or shifted to fill a new role aboard ship. The lives of many thousands of workers will be involved.

The integration of separate industries, and with this the integration of the worker as a highly developed scientist of technology, is now concretely posed in the sphere of the relations between oil and the coal industries.

The known reserves of oil are limited. The industry has therefore constantly sought a substitute for crude oil. The desperate search of the Germans led them to develop a process for making gasoline and oil from coal. During World War II the Fischer-Tropsch process and the IG hydrogenation process were developed which successfully convert coal into gasoline and oil. These processes can utilize any type of coal, some of which were formerly of no commercial value. It also makes mechanical mining machines, that have heretofore been of little value, again profitable to operate. It makes possible the conversion of coal into powder at the mine face and blowing it to the surface through pneumatic tubes into a refinery located at the mine-mouth. The coal worker would then become an oil worker, or vice versa. The two would become interchangeable.

Yet the interchangeable relationships of coal and oil remain pipe-dreams. That is not because many millions of dollars’ worth of new plants employing these ideas are not now on drafting boards. They are. The practical processes are already known and patented. A $300,000 plant of this type based on the Fischer-Tropsch process is being constructed now by Standard Oil Co. $40,000,000 are invested in the IG hydrogenation processes. The relationships of production, the role of the millions of workers in oil, coal, electric power, railroads, are yet to be developed. Yet when these relationships do take form, it will be as the result of the form assumed by the process of production. What is needed to realize automatic production is well developed and all-rounded individuals who understand the science of this process of production.

The most finished expression of this technological movement so far is the unleashing of atomic energy. The profound technological revolution embodied in these chemical industries is sufficiently, though not by any means completely, indicated in the fact that they are taking place in the basic sphere of the production of power. Synthetic though these industries are, raw materials, such as the oil itself, or uranium in the production of atomic energy, assume an importance which does not lessen but greatly intensifies the struggle for control of the world. At the same time, as oil indicates with extreme clarity, the role the proletariat will have to play in these industries, the insoluble class conflicts in the coal industry, for example, in the United States and in reality all over the world, show that the reorganization of this industry in harmony with the new discoveries, while offering one way out for the growing revolt against wage labor in the mines, is utterly beyond bourgeois society. The threat of disruption by oil hangs over the coal industry. To the limited extent that the bourgeoisie does attempt reorganization or coordination it is compelled to sharpen the differentiation among the strata of labor in the industry, creating privileged technological castes, while the state intervenes more and more to enclose the masses of the workers in a totalitarian vise.

The labor struggles in the atomic energy plants are sufficient evidence of this. Tomorrow, as the social crisis and the war crisis deepen, the workers in the all-important oil industry will be threatened with a similar regimentation. Precisely because the structure of the coal industry does not permit the regimentation inherent in the capitalistic control of oil and atomic energy, great battles in the coal industry between the proletariat and the state continue. Meanwhile even within the limited reorganizations possible to the bourgeoisie, the workers are continually faced with new problems as old job classifications are abolished, new ones established.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist,” wrote Marx and Engels a century ago, “without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbances of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.”

Marx attached great importance to this passage which first appeared in the Communist Manifesto and which he quoted in one of the most important sections of Capital. The oil industry, as one of the most advanced industries of the modern world, illustrates with unusual richness and concreteness this characteristic of bourgeois society at the stage of the immense antagonisms and contradictions which mark the ripeness for transition to socialist society. The old struggle for “higher wages” and “improved working conditions” tend to assume a new quality from within the very process of production itself. Like the problem of inflation, they become insoluble in the purely economic field of wage and price discussions and demands. The workers face either a desperate attempt of the b6urgeoisie to solve these problems and discipline labor by the police-state and the machine gun in the factory or an effort by themselves to organize the proletarian state and the proletarian control and management of industry. The one method leads to barbarism, the other to socialism.

April 15, 1948


1. The work of an old-time stillman is described by Stuart Chase as follows:

A pressure still operated for 48 hours and then had to be cleaned out for the next run of product. When the temperature dropped to about 250°F a workman crawled inside, padded like an Eskimo, and with a big iron bar began to chip and scrape the tarry residue left on the bottom. A few hours later the still would have been cool enough for anyone to do the job, but empty stills make no money.

It is little wonder that these men who risked their lives every day inhaling poisonous fumes were the most oppressed, the most militant and the first to strike for more humane conditions of work.

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