This post could also be called: Social Protection & The Shell Oil Strike (1973)
(Warning: some violent content follows.)
“Henderson was ordered to light off a furnace … He objected that it was unsafe. Two other operators told the foreman it was not mechanically safe, nor had it properly been purged (of gas). The foreman called the department manager at home and then told Henderson that they decided it was safe and to light it off. All employees have been told what will happen if they refuse. (They will be walked to the gate.) All employees have been told that under such circumstances they will not be allowed union representation until after the work is performed.
Mr. Henderson struck the torch and was burned to death.”
Taken from a testimony before the National Relations Labor Board, 1970.
“In 1970, 100,000 workers died from unhealthy or unsafe conditions on the job. 25 million were injured.”
First annual report to Congress of the Occupational, Health and Safety Administration. 1970 regarding worker safety in the U.S.
Those facts hint at the context behind the Shell Oil Strike of 1973: the first national strike and boycott where the environmental community and labor worked together to improve everyone’s health and safety.
I had to ask myself: Why was Shell so cavalier about worker safety? What was their side of this story?
The other side of the story is that oil production in the U.S. peaked in 1970. Shell continued to make a profit but by 1972 it had already taken a significant dip: 24%. Shell found itself at the bottom of the big 7 major oil companies in terms of their rate of profit.
Shell was not alone in seeing reduced profits; all the American and European oil companies were starting to feel the pinch and had started raising prices. But there was an extra twist. For the first time they had some serious outside competition. Not only were oil resources just starting to be exploited in the Middle East and North Africa but those countries got organized forming OPEC in 1968.
Shell and the other oil companies fought back in a number of ways, some quite creative. There was a propaganda campaign about an ‘oil shortage’ and ‘energy crisis’ to justify the increasing prices passed on to the consumer. The mainstream media of course fell into line and presented countless images of rising gas prices, worried or frantic people waiting at gas pumps as well as endless justifications for constructing the Alaska pipeline. Wait! This scenario sounds vaguely familiar …
Just imagine if we had thought of that ‘crisis’ as an opportunity to make systemic changes. What if we had put all that human brain power and those billions of dollars of support for the fossil fuel industries into renewable energy and public transportation systems instead? With almost 50 years of effort we could have changed the world for the better. Think of all the wars we could have avoided. Think of all the human suffering that could have been avoided. Not to mention the problems of climate change and habitat destruction that we could have dodged.
Oh well. That’s a story for the speculative fiction crowd.
Might have been … and what really happened …
Besides the propaganda campaign, Shell did what companies frequently do when aiming for greater profit: they tried to cut the cost of labor. When the time came for labor negotiations that year, Shell absolutely refused to budge on improving conditions regarding health and safety for workers. Some say they deliberately forced a strike they thought the workers couldn’t win.
Their Fight is Our Fight
The union met Shell on the creative battleground and pulled their own version of a rabbit from the magician’s hat of advertising. The union spent about a half a million dollars on a campaign to alert people to the dangerous chemicals used to manufacture petroleum products … all those chemicals that threatened the health and safety not only of workers but consumers, too.
Half a million dollars in the early 70s wasn’t small change but it was money well spent because it engaged the attention of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the founders of the awesomely successful Earth Day of 1970. The environmental movement was probably peaking in power and credibility and it seems like for a moment everyone was getting the message. Cabbies in New York stopped buying their gas from Shell. The Berkeley City Council cancelled their contract with Shell. Longshoremen refused to unload Shell cargo. et cetera et cetera
Shell wasn’t too concerned at first. The very same managers who told Mr. Henderson to light the torch remained confident. “You’ll be back on your hands and knees in thirty days,” they declared.
Didn’t happen. So Shell reached back to Gilded Age intimidation tactics. They hired security guards and sheriffs to take photographs of the strikers. They brought in scab labor to continue production. Ironically, many of the scab workers refused to return once they saw for themselves the poor state of equipment maintenance. Shell was unable to meet its contracts and after 5 months it was forced to settle with the workers. As for the rest of us, we were a little better informed about the toxic nature and risks of petroleum products.
I got almost all of this info from this pdf which also has lots of great period photos.
Here is another source of information: http://www.usw12-591.org/strike1973.html
and here: http://ecology.iww.org/texts/misc/1973_Shell_strike
An aside: It was really hard trying to locate information about this event in history outside of the labor community. It is almost as if this strike has been erased from public memory.