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The War in Ukraine and Us

As the war in Ukraine enters its tenth week, the Chevron Refinery in Richmond is facing its first strike in forty years. There’s a clear connection between the two events. With the consequences of the war spreading further every day, we need to consider the situation at whose protruding end the Chevron workers stand right now, and at which we will stand later if we don’t already.

The Chevron workers went on strike March 21st, after voting down several contract renewal offers presented to them by the United Steelworkers union (USW). These offers were rejected because they proposed salaries far below cost of living. The war in Ukraine gave further impetus to reject the contracts, the workers having said the strike is a response to the inflation we’re all currently seeing. They pointed to how their health insurance bills went up 23% last year, how their rent was rising, and to how gasoline prices in the Bay Area climbed to around or even above six dollars a gallon. As a worker at the refinery told “Every contract we get closer to the minimum wage. A 2.5 pay increase is a pay cut. I went to put gas in my Yukon the other day and it wouldn’t fill up all the way because the pump wouldn’t go above $100.” Their grievances also included forced overtime and “standby time,” wherein workers have to be on call every day without compensation. The Richmond refinery accounts for 20% of gasoline and 60% of jet fuel used in Northern California—in all, 1.25% of daily consumption in the United States and 14% of daily consumption in California.

The timing of the rejected contract proposals also wasn’t coincidental. The original contract which these proposals were intended to replace expired on February 1st, and in the interim Chevron and the USW kept work going on temporary 24 hour agreements. The new contract proposals were only announced February 25th, a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and after the USW president met with cabinet executives in the Departments of Energy and Defense. At such a junction—the beginning of a new catastrophe which would further hobble supply chains and strain the many NATO members dependent on Russian gas—it was crucial for the government and the trade unions to prevent any unrest in the petrochemical industry, though it’d be at this moment that the Chevron workers would have the most power. While not definitively against strike action, the trade unions aren’t for widening workers’ struggles. Historically, the government only recognized trade unions so that they’d be constrained. Their legal recognition (codified in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935) was conditional, conditional on the trade unions mediating collisions between workers and employers in a way attendant to the smooth operation of the system. This is felt in Richmond as it is everywhere else, regardless of the virtues or personalities of individual trade union officials. Other unions at the Chevron refinery have crossed the picket line and ordered their members to continue working as opposed to joining the strike. Strikers reported not having received any remuneration from the USW’s hundreds of millions of dollars strike fund. The USW president said the rejected contract proposals “did not add to inflationary pressures,” something which is patently false. 

The USW is not for broadening the Chevron workers’ fight. They’re not for broadening it inside the same sector, where workers are supportive of the strike and have near identical grievances, and they’re certainly not for broadening it to the rest of our class. This is a pattern. It could’ve been seen last year when the IATSE union (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) prevented 60,000 workers in the entertainment industry from going on strike, even though there’d been a majority vote to do so. It could’ve been seen around the same time when the BCTGM union (Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers’ and Grain Millers’ International Union) was unwilling or incapable of broadening a struggle of Kellogg’s workers and instead kept wearing them down with rejected sellout contracts. 

The events that caused the Richmond strike affect us all, no matter what sector we’re in or who “our” capitalists are. But the events themselves are nothing new. They’re merely a deepening of the bigger crisis which has sodden capitalism for decades, a crisis for which neither the capitalists nor the innumerable champions of working class interests have a solution. The supply chain having been badly bedraggled by the events of the last two years; the rate of profit plunging as the fallout from 2008 persists. The bosses have to attack our conditions in order to recuperate the profits they’ve lost. Their doing so is why real wages have been in free fall since the 1970s, the end of the period that the French call Les Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of comparable prosperity after the Second World War. But as always, the working class pays for the crisis. Many workers pay for it with their lives, and many are doing so in a way they hadn’t before. The war in Ukraine, aside from its horrific atrocities and financial ruin, represents a dangerous turning point. The war wasn’t happenstance. It’s a sign that, after an epoch where capitalism had stabilized itself enough to preclude larger confrontations between superpowers, it’s now being squeezed so hard of its internal contradictions that states are increasingly turning to pillaging others. The system having exhausted itself of other solutions, this is unavoidable and inevitable. 

Things are not all doom and gloom. It’s due to this and to their wanting to fight that 5,000 Stanford and Packard nurses in the Bay Area went on strike last week. It’s due to this that over 40,000 grocery store workers voted to strike in late March. Elsewhere, there are glimmers of hope for a working class opposition to the crisis and to generalized conflict. In Italy and Greece, airport, railway, and dock workers have refused to load NATO arms shipments to Ukraine. In Belarus, railway workers have sabotaged the rail connections to Russia in order to obstruct the war effort, and in Iran, the revolutionary workers of Haft Tappeh are on strike once again after having issued a fiery denunciation of the nationalist drive to war. In the UK, the balloting for what would be the biggest rail strike in decades begins this week. In Peru, five workers have been murdered by the forces of a left-wing and ‘socialist’ government, in an attempt to crush massive street demonstrations against inflation and price hikes. We shouldn’t delude ourselves of our own strength—the bosses still have the initiative. But these events are the latest signs of the growing class militancy which has dogged the system especially since the pandemic. Latent within them is the direction forward. 

Playing parliamentary arithmetic gets us nowhere. It even sets us further back. We also can’t allow the official forces of the left and the socialist parties to insert themselves at the head of the struggle. We need to develop our own organizational forms. Whether these be independent strike committees or clandestine groups which link other workers across both unionized and non-unionized shops; whether they be mass meetings or meetings inside ice cream parlors, class struggle knows no divisions of workplace, sector, or region. Neither does it know any division of nation. Class interests everywhere are the same. Our power doesn’t lie in the House of Representatives or in the offices of bourgeois political parties. Our power lies in our ability to act at the point of production. 

To summarize: The strike in Richmond is owing to a definite turning point for the whole class, the reverberations of which will continue to be felt in the Northern California area. Defeat is bred of our isolation; victory is bred of our coming together across workplaces, trades & professions, and union lines. To win we have to widen the struggle. While undoubtedly a drop in the bucket compared to what is really needed, communication and expressions of solidarity with the Chevron workers (and all other members of our class) can be a small step toward this. Organizing informal groups in support of the strike at one’s workplace, school, building, with one’s friends, etc, would also be a positive development.   

By confining the struggle to individual sectors, locations, or other subdivisions (like the charlatans who say that, as one or the other issue is the ‘business of the women’ or ‘the gays,’ mentioning these issues ‘divides’ the class), the bosses rob us of our biggest advantage. As the crisis deepens, fraternization between workers is key. We can’t abdicate the struggle to professionals or bureaucrats. We can and have to do it ourselves. As against further declines in living standards, imminent ecological catastrophe, and a renewed danger of inter-imperialist war, the time for suffering in private is over. We can’t bear any more equivocation. We fight together or we lose alone.

May 1st, 2022,

Northern California Communist Bulletin Group

Originally appeared in the free broadsheet of the NCCBG, Adrasteia No. 1