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  • History of the Oil Workers

    A Short History of the Oil Workers


    Although local unions in the oil industry since the early 1880s had been born, had fought battles both won and lost, and had died as workers' demands were met or employer pressure grew too great, the first lasting union in the oil industry arose when oil rig workers in California's San Joaquin Valley called a strike in 1917 to punctuate their demand for an eight-hour day.


    This strike and a simultaneous battle on the Texas Gulf Coast led to the issuance in 1918 of one of the American Federation of Labor's only wall-to-wall industrial union charters. The union, originally known by the unwieldy name of the Intl. Assn. of Oil Field, Gas Well & Refinery Workers of America, became the Oil Workers Intl. Union in 1937.


    The OCAW's roots have been in small towns and rural areas outside the major urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest. This does much to account for the strong streak of independence and the persistent commitment to union democracy exhibited by the members of the organization over the years.


    In the late 1930s, as conflicts grew between industrial workers and the more traditional craft-oriented unions that dominated the AFL, the Oil Workers joined with six other unions to found what became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO led a renewed upsurge of organizing that put labor in the U.S. on the map to stay.


    Also during the 1930s, workers in many of the urban gas houses that burned coal into coke for the steel industry and into cooking gas for homes before the advent of gas pipeline networks organized into local unions. The locals were soon chartered as District 50 of John L. Lewis's United Mine Workers.


    Many chemical workers began to join District 50. In the early 1940s, after Lewis split with the CIO, most of the gas house locals and chemical workers' locals split with District 50 and received a CIO charter as the United Gas, Coke & Chemical Workers of America.


    Throughout the next decade both unions enjoyed frequent organizing success and both continued to grow. As the unions grew, leaders in both organizations began to see the virtue of combining forces. In 1955, the two unions did so, forming the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW).


    That same year, the AFL and the CIO merged, creating the AFL-CIO we know today.


    In the 1960s, the union succeeded after many years in establishing nationwide bargaining as the norm in the oil industry. During that time period, the OCAW became a key player in the effort that led Congress to pass the Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA) late in 1970. Three years later, the union signed its first collective bargaining agreement containing a specific health and safety clause.


    These agreements soon became standard in OCAW contracts, but not without a fight. As the 1973 collective bargaining agreements began to be signed by oil company after oil company, Shell Oil refused to negotiate health and safety language in its new labor contracts.


    It took a four-month strike, marked by an upsurge of support from unions around the world and by many in the environmental community, to force Shell's agreement to health and safety language. The OCAW continued to lead the way on health and safety issues throughout the 1980s and 1990s.


    In 1974, Karen Silkwood, a young OCAW member at the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corp. plant in Crescent, OK began to raise safety concerns and protest working conditions in the plant. She was exposed to a massive dose of plutonium, and contended her exposure was due to unsafe conditions at the plant.


    A few weeks later her car ran off the road as she was driving to meet an OCAW representative and a New York Times reporter. She was killed instantly, and there were suggestions of foul play. Documentation she had been carrying in her car vanished. Silkwood's family later won a multi-million dollar damage suit against the company.


    On January 4, 1999 when OCAW merged with the International Paperworkers International Union to form PACE, the OCAW represented 80,000 members in the oil patch, in refineries, in chemical plants, and in the pharmaceutical and nuclear industries. The union's largest concentrations of members have been along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the upper Midwest, and along the West Coast.


    On April 14, 2005, PACE Int’l Union and the United Steelworkers of America merged to form the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Employees Int’l Union (to be known in short as “United Steelworkers” with the acronym “USW”) to form the largest industrial union in the U.S.


    Page Last Updated: Jan 31, 2009 (09:50:50)
  • USW LOCAL 5 - United Steelworkers Int'l Union

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