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Bucking the Odds: Organized Labor In Gulf Coast Oil Refining [Historical Analysis]


The Gulf Coast of the United States has long been home to the world’s largest concentration of petroleum refineries and chemical plants. These sprawling, interconnected complexes of crude oil tanks, distillation columns, fractionating towers, lubricating oil units, alkylation units, dewaxing units, and monstrous catalytic “crackers” churn out the gasoline and other petroleum products that have helped sustain modern American society. Shortly after the 1901 discovery of oil at Spindletop, Texas, the region’s first large refineries, owned by Gulf Oil and Texaco, sprang up in nearby Port Arthur and Beaumont. With subsequent discoveries along the Gulf Coast, refineries spread southwest to Houston and Corpus Christi, and east to Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, Louisiana. By 1941 the Gulf Coast accounted for 28 percent of national refining capacity, rising to 32 percent by 1956, and 36 percent by 1976.[1]

Refineries depended on a large and stable work force—more than two hundred thousand people nationwide by 1955, in nearly three hundred refineries of all sizes in thirty-nine states—to keep the units running smoothly, around the clock. One-third of these workers were employed on the Gulf Coast, most of them concentrated in fourteen major refineries on the upper Texas coast and in Louisiana. Working-class people in the Gulf Coast region coveted refinery jobs, which were equivalent to positions in northern automobile or steel plants. Except for a brief period during World War II, these jobs went exclusively to men. Into the 1960s almost all the higher-paying skilled jobs were reserved for whites, which along the upper Gulf Coast included both Anglos and Cajuns. The jobs paid well, included generous benefits after World War I, and offered a means of upward socioeconomic mobility. Minorities, too, including African Americans as well as Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans, found desirable wage-labor work at refineries, albeit in segregated classifications. Job losses in the oil industry during the Great Depression, however, forced white and minority workers alike to organize. The union movement in oil targeted refining, the least isolated and geographically dispersed sector of the industry. As was the case across the Jim Crow South, labor organizing in refining consisted of a dual struggle by all workers for dignity, job security, and workplace control, and by racial minorities for workplace equality. [2]

Explaining the failure of unionization in the South has long preoccupied labor historians, who debate the relative importance of southern laborers’ cultural opposition to unions, the racism of southern whites, and management hostility to unions in small-firm industries. The pioneering work of the labor and economics scholar F. Ray Marshall inspired a wealth of scholarship on labor and race in the South. Unlike Marshall, however, most historians have overlooked Gulf Coast petroleum refining, which developed into one of the largest industries in the southern United States. By 1945 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) oil workers union bucked the odds against organized labor in the Jim Crow South by winning representation in nearly all major Gulf Coast refineries. For ten years after the war, oil workers in Louisiana and east Texas built on those victories to become the union’s largest district in the nation. Union organizing in the South, in other words, was not quite the abject failure southern labor historians have portrayed it to be. [3]

Several factors enabled the CIO oil workers’ union to “challenge the giants” along the Gulf Coast. This struggle occurred in one of the few regions in the country where the concentration of refineries and number of workers were large enough to make successful organizing possible. The legacy of populism in east Texas, with its distrust of big business, especially Standard Oil, helped trump rural whites’ suspicions of outside unions. The presence of “independent” unions in early refining provided workers with nominal representation and elevated their expectations. The strategic importance of oil during World War II and the Korean War, along with persistent labor shortages in the industry as refining expanded, gave refinery unions bargaining leverage. Wartime federal intervention to protect workers’ collective bargaining rights bolstered CIO victories. The unusual autonomy that the national oil workers’ union afforded its local chapters helped them adapt to changing circumstances. Finally, minority workers provided critical support in organizing key plants. Although Gulf Coast refineries remained segregated and simmered with racial tensions, they had lower racial barriers to employment than did other southern industries and, as Marshall observed in 1963, these refineries were the place where “one of the most systematic efforts has been made to provide better employment opportunities for Negroes.” [4]

Race was a salient factor in labor struggles in refining but not the primary cause of union decline. In the 1950s, management reasserted its power, not so much through the manipulation of racial divisions among workers, but rather through the hiring of contractors for jobs and applying new technology to make other manpower reductions. These developments undermined organized labor’s main source of workplace control: the strike. By the time minorities won something close to equality in the refineries, with assistance from federal desegregation measures in the 1960s, the refinery labor market had shrunk and union protections had been weakened. The transformation of refinery work thus foreshadowed labor market trends not only in the South but also across the nation.

Refinery Jobs in a Poor Farming Region, 1910–1935

As Gulf Coast refineries mushroomed during the first two decades of the century, they attracted migrants from eastern Texas and western Louisiana by offering better wages, shorter hours, and more job security than other industries in the region. Employers paid a premium wage to maintain a stable, nonunion shop, rather than suffer shutdowns caused by discontented employees walking off the job. The wage premium also gave employees the incentive to endure the dangers of refinery work, where explosions and fires were all-too-common hazards. Higher wages bought workers’ deference to the rigidly hierarchical organization of plants, where plant managers and foremen had complete authority over hiring, promotion, and job assignments. [5]

Refineries were also racially segregated. Most Gulf Coast refinery workers were Anglos from east Texas or Cajuns from southwest Louisiana who worked in two basic job categories: process or production operations, running various kinds of equipment; and mechanical operations or maintenance, working in positions such as carpenters, welders, electricians, boilermakers, machinists, or pipefitters. The third and lowest-paid category of jobs, laborers, was chiefly filled by African Americans, and later ethnic Mexicans, performing menial tasks with no opportunities for advancement. Following the practice of the local construction industry, refineries typically had separate and inferior wage schedules for “colored” or “colored and Mexican” workers, as well as segregated facilities. For minorities faced with limited options in a declining sharecropper system, a job in the refinery gang nonetheless offered the best wage around. [6]

During the production boom of World War I, refinery workers, assisted by federal mediators, asserted claims for even better compensation and a voice in deciding how work was organized. A wave of wildcat strikes for higher wages, improved working conditions, and job security in the oil fields of California, Texas, and Louisiana, and at four of the nation’s major refineries—Standard Oil of New Jersey’s Bayonne, New Jersey, plant in 1915; Gulf Oil’s Port Arthur refinery in 1916; Magnolia Oil’s Beaumont plant in 1919; and Jersey Standard’s Baton Rouge plant in 1920—resulted in the introduction of nonunion employee representation plans (NERPs). These plans were designed not only to accommodate workers’ demands but also to fend off unions, such as the American Federation of Labor’s International Association of Oil Field, Gas Well, and Refinery Workers of America (IAOFGW&RWA), chartered in 1918. [7]

Suspicions of Standard Oil ran deep in the former populist stronghold of east Texas, generating sympathy for oil-field strikers. When Jersey Standard bought a controlling interest in the Humble Oil and Refining Company in 1919 and built a giant refinery at Baytown, east of Houston, the company aimed to mollify those suspicions with the most comprehensive NERP in the industry. Modeled on the Industrial Representation Plan instituted at John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company after the notorious 1914 massacre of workers at the Ludlow, Colorado, coal mine, Humble’s plan provided contractual language on work rules, wages, and working conditions, along with provisions for worker election of representatives to a joint labor-management conference, where grievances could be settled. Refinery owners also introduced “welfare capitalist” programs, including pensions, paid vacations, death and injury benefits, and low-cost housing. [8]

Management’s assertion of paternalistic authority in the Gulf Coast petroleum refining industry brought concrete benefits to white workers. During the 1920s refinery wages declined in relation to other Gulf Coast occupations, but nonwage benefits extended by NERPs, which were available only in the large refineries and only to white workers, helped produce an unprecedented improvement in those workers’ standard of living. NERPs also gave white workers a voice, however small, in the organization of refinery workplaces, fostering a conviction that a steady job with good wages and benefits was a right to be defended. [9]

The Rise of Industrial Unionism, 1935–1945

As was the case in so many manufacturing industries, the labor bargain broke down in the depression years of the early 1930s, when thousands of refinery workers were fired or suffered reduced wages and benefits. The loss of job security stoked festering grievances against management, creating an opening for outside union organizing in Gulf Coast refineries. [10]

The passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933 inspired organizing campaigns by national unions such as the IAOFGW&RWA. The union won a critical victory in 1934 when it signed a national agreement with Sinclair Oil that covered all of the company’s field production, pipeline, and refinery operations. The agreement had glaring weaknesses, but it provided the membership base for organizing other refineries on the Gulf Coast. Early efforts to expand beyond Sinclair, however, were stymied by competition from American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions, labor-management councils such as Humble Oil’s Baytown NERP, and the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the NIRA in 1935. After the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935 finally gave federal recognition to the rights of workers to bargain collectively, the IAOFGW&RWA was emboldened to join the insurgent CIO. Two years later it simplified its name, mercifully, to the Oil Workers’ International Union (OWIU). [11]

Refinery managers resisted the OWIU with the full range of tactics used by employers all over the country—threats, spies, red smears, police deputizations of nonunion employees, and racist jeremiads. After the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act in 1937, oil companies recast their management-dominated labor organizations as “independent unions,” usually with separate African American auxiliaries. The Baytown Joint Conference became the Baytown Employees Federation, and the Industrial Relations Plan at Jersey Standard’s Baton Rouge plant, the largest on the Gulf Coast at the time, morphed into the Independent Industrial Workers Association (IIWA). The emergence of these independent unions, which initially were hardly independent of management control, combined with the internal weakness of the OWIU, kept the CIO at bay along the Gulf Coast for several years. By the beginning of World War II, the AFL and CIO unions together had organized only three thousand employees in six refineries nationwide, whereas independent unions represented 34,100 workers in fifty-three refineries. [12]

During the war, the national interest in defense production gave greater urgency and legitimacy to federal intervention in labor relations. This was true for unions in many manufacturing industries but especially so for southern ones. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), created in 1934, opened plants to fair elections, curbed union-busting tactics, and forced reforms of company-dominated unions. Beginning in 1942 the National War Labor Board (NWLB) tied defense contracts to union elections. In return for unions’ pledge not to strike, the NWLB also authorized “maintenance of membership” provisions in union contracts, which required employees to remain members of the union until a collective bargaining agreement expired. The NLRB and NWLB thus helped fuel the OWIU’s growth from 27,000 members in 1939 to 65,000 members in 1945. [13]

A large part of that growth took place along the Gulf Coast. Many refineries in Louisiana and Humble’s Baytown refinery elected AFL or independent unions, but the OWIU became the dominant labor organization in the upper Texas Gulf Coast refineries. By the end of the war, the OWIU had twelve thousand members in Jefferson County, Texas (home to Port Arthur and Beaumont), alone, the largest concentration of OWIU workers in the nation. [14]

Another reason for the OWIU’s growth was the union’s newfound internal stability and resolve. In 1940, at its national convention in Fort Worth, Texas, the OWIU elected a new generation of officers, led by the new president, O. A. “Jack” Knight, who had been an effective organizer in California and who would remain president for the next twenty-five years. The convention also revised the union’s constitution to enhance the decision-making autonomy of locals, establishing the OWIU as one of the most democratically organized CIO unions. Although local autonomy hampered efforts to launch national campaigns against an oil company or group of companies, forcing unionists to organize each plant individually, autonomy nevertheless boosted the esprit de corps of rank-and-file workers, with demonstrable effects on the Gulf Coast. [15]

The union movement in this region still encountered entrenched resistance. The separately organized Oil Workers Organizing Campaign (OWOC), established in 1941 and subsidized by the CIO, helped achieve union victories, but it also provoked a political backlash. Many of the organizers were radicals recruited from outside the industry, and some were Communist party members. Oil companies and public officials, especially on the Gulf Coast, thus found it easy to paint the CIO “as a sinister outside force” that was “run by damn Yankees who took orders from Moscow.” This zealous anticommunism and hostility to the CIO found its most powerful spokesman in Rep. Martin Dies Jr., the congressman who from 1937 to 1944 represented the district that encompassed the Jefferson County refining region and who created and chaired the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, later called HUAC or the Dies Committee. [16]

Race was a critical factor in the OWIU-OWOC campaign in this region. In 1939 African Americans working in Gulf Coast refineries numbered about 1,450, or 4 percent of the total work force of approximately 36,000, and Mexicans about 750, or 2 percent of the total. Nearly 90 percent of these minorities were concentrated in refineries on the upper Texas Gulf Coast where they made up as much as 12 percent of the work force. So it is not surprising that the OWIU, with its commitment to the CIO’s policy of interracial unionism, had its greatest appeal in east Texas. Houston-Pasadena OWIU Locals 227 and 367 integrated minorities into their membership, helping the union win representation at the Sinclair, Shell, and Pan-American oil refineries. Although racial discrimination persisted in promotion decisions and in other informal ways, union contracts in these integrated locals formally eliminated separate wage scales, thus granting black and Mexican workers significant wage increases. A separate pattern emerged in Beaumont and Port Arthur. During World War I black workers in these communities had formed their own all-black locals (229 and 254, respectively), which endured and later proved crucial to OWIU’s victories at the Texaco and Gulf Oil refineries. [17]

The Beaumont and Port Arthur victories, in particular, were hard won. The OWIU’s organizing of minority workers stirred up white-supremacist reaction. Port Arthur police chief Hardie F. Baker, a former refinery supervisor at Gulf Oil, and a “notorious Negro-beater” and harasser of CIO “agitators,” infamously led a group of policemen through black neighborhoods on the eve of a 1938 NLRB election at the Gulf Oil refinery, threatening African Americans who intended to vote. The intimidation worked. Members of the all-black Local 254 stayed home, and the OWIU narrowly lost. Four years later, however, newly vitalized unionists stood up to the intimidation. In February 1942 Baker and two deputies brutalized the OWIU organizer F. H. Mitchell, a Native American from Oklahoma who was assigned to recruit Port Arthur’s black refinery workers. Afterward, those black workers defiantly showed up in large numbers to give the OWIU a crucial victory in the second Gulf Oil election. [18]

Union advances and community-based organizing in Gulf Coast refineries turned the local political tide in Port Arthur, Beaumont, Texas City, and Pasadena. Activism by OWIU leaders, along with the work by their women’s auxiliaries, helped elect union-friendly city officials and garner support from local businesses, civic organizations, and churches. In Jefferson County, unionists pressured the Port Arthur city government to fire Police Chief Baker in 1943, and they took credit for forcing oil companies to withdraw their support for Rep. Martin Dies, who in 1944 chose not to seek reelection to Congress. At the state level, oil workers and CIO unionists formed the nucleus of a new liberal faction of the Texas Democratic party. [19]

The OWIU still came up short in extending industrial democracy to racial minorities, however. The Wagner Act did not name race discrimination as an unfair labor practice, and so the scope of federal intervention to guarantee all workers’ rights was limited. Despite the CIO’s and OWIU’s egalitarian position on race, most rank-and-file white unionists opposed any alteration of the two-tier, segregated job system. “The Negro was at a disadvantage,” admitted John Crossland, a white unionist with Shell Refinery Local 367 in Pasadena: “A lot of white membership … didn’t want them to have a line of progression.” [20]

Where “independent” unions had a strong presence, racist appeals held off the CIO. Jersey Standard, one of the most antiunion oil companies, stubbornly fought the OWIU at its Baytown and Baton Rouge refineries. At Baytown in 1942, Humble hired a former newspaper publisher to circulate hundreds of bulletins for the Employees Federation assailing the CIO, often by inflaming the racial prejudices of rank-and-file white workers. “The CIO already has a large block of votes in this refinery in almost 100% of the Negro workers, whom they have blinded with promises of complete social and industrial equality with white people, both men and women,” stated one of the bulletins, insinuating that the CIO was promising black men sexual access to white women. At election time, a group of well-dressed white women appeared at the refinery gate handing out a pamphlet entitled CIO Promises Negroes Equality with Whites and telling white workers that unionized black workers in other plants were earning so much that their wives and daughters refused work as maids. Baytown’s white workers overwhelmingly voted for the Employees Federation, to protect what had become their racially defined job security, as well as, perhaps, the gendered social order of Jim Crow. [21]

Still, federal officials and minority workers made determined efforts to challenge this system. During the war, the Texas office of the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), the agency charged with enforcing President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order banning racial discrimination in defense plants, targeted three refineries—Humble-Baytown, Sinclair, and Shell–Deer Park—for discriminatory practices, hoping to force changes across the entire industry. Anticipating white opposition to upgrading African Americans, the FEPC focused on complaints by ethnic Mexican workers, whose numbers were growing as refineries staffed up to meet defense orders. Ultimately, however, this strategy failed. Both Anglo workers and refinery management resisted nondiscrimination directives from the FEPC, whose lack of enforcement powers and brief existence in Texas hobbled efforts to reform the two-tier job system. [22]

The Zenith of Union Power, 1945–1959

The unionization of most Gulf Coast refineries by the OWIU did not dismantle workplace segregation, but it did alter the balance of power between labor and management, giving white workers, and to a lesser extent, minority workers, enforceable guarantees on wages and working conditions. The most potent weapon of enforcement in the union arsenal was the strike—or the threat of a strike. Shutting down and restarting a refinery was a time-consuming and potentially dangerous process. Any sustained interruption in the conversion of crude oil to marketable products also strained an oil company’s bottom line. An industry-wide strike initiated by the OWIU in 1945 shut down refineries in the region, provoking President Harry S. Truman to authorize the navy to seize the refineries and appoint a government panel to mediate the strike. In the end, OWIU workers received an 18 percent wage increase. With this settlement, the OWIU surpassed Jersey Standard and its independent unions as the industry leader in setting wage rates. By strengthening their negotiating positions with a strike, OWIU locals also obtained more generous fringe benefits and pressed their advantage to shape contractual guidelines on tenure, promotion, seniority, and job classifications. [23]

Retaining this advantage proved an uphill battle. After the war, the OWIU, and organized labor in general, operated in an increasingly hostile political environment. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, over President Truman’s veto, prohibited some of the practices unions had employed to shut down plants and required advance notice of strikes. Taft-Hartley also allowed companies to reduce the size of union bargaining units by classifying more employees as “supervisors,” a provision that oil companies took great advantage of in refineries. The act required anticommunist affidavits from union officers, leading to a purge of radicals, more so in other CIO unions, such as the United Gas, Coke, and Chemical Workers of America (UGCCWA), than in the OWIU, which had never leaned far to the left. But OWIU’s leadership nevertheless could not escape red-baiting attacks. [24]

From a humiliating defeat in California refineries in 1948, the OWIU learned lessons about planning and carrying out strikes, which it then applied to the Gulf Coast region with noticeably greater success than enjoyed by the CIO’s Operation Dixie in southern textile mills. The OWIU began shifting greater resources and power to the national office to coordinate collective bargaining efforts and establish national patterns in contract language. The OWIU also began forming alliances with non-OWIU unions, obtaining in the early 1950s cooperation from AFL unions and even many independent unions to carry out a month-long strike during the Korean War that shut down one-third of the nation’s refining capacity and won a 15 percent wage increase. [25]

In 1953 the OWIU and the independent unions explored forming a single, powerful refining union. Oil companies responded with a negative press campaign that branded the merger talk “a development of fearsome portents.” The campaign worked, discouraging the independents from consolidating with the OWIU. However, in 1955 the OWIU aligned with workers in burgeoning petrochemical plants by joining with the UGCCWA to form the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), shortly before the grand merger between the AFL and CIO. At the same time, independents, such as the Employees Federation and IIWA at the two large Jersey Standard plants, pursued coordinated actions that strengthened their bargaining leverage. By the mid-1950s, operators and maintenance workers in Gulf Coast refineries enjoyed improved work conditions, enhanced job security, and steadily rising wages that far exceeded those of all other workers in the region. [26]

The growing privileges of the refinery jobs reserved for whites generated rising expectations among minority employees, who stepped up their challenge to the two-tier labor system. Beginning in the mid-1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed numerous complaints with the President’s Committee on Government Contracts (created in 1953) against companies and OCAW locals. These efforts won promotions for minority workers and produced contractual settlements, such as those ensuring that minority employees with high school diplomas could move into line for skilled jobs. Companies and locals still found ways to defend racial barriers—for example, by hiring only African Americans who lacked high school diplomas or by making unit seniority, as opposed to plant seniority, a prerequisite for advancement. By the late 1950s segregation and racist attitudes remained entrenched in many refineries. Yet in a growing number of them, thanks to federal intervention and grassroots activism by African Americans and Mexican Americans, the color barrier was beginning to break down. [27]

The Decline of Organized Labor in Refining

Just when OCAW and other refinery unions were consolidating their power and minority workers were gaining access to skilled positions, a technological revolution in refinery operations began to reduce the demand for labor. Steady innovation in electronic controls, sensors, and instrumentation increasingly automated refinery operations, reducing the number of gauges and valves that needed to be monitored manually. After World War II the ongoing automation of refinery operations began to make some operating jobs redundant. [28]

Technology gave management a chance to redress the balance of power in the industry. Like other employers, oil companies had long viewed union-enforced job definitions as “featherbedding,” the practice of adopting make-work rules and retaining surplus employees. During the 1950s, faced with declining profits due to intensified competition in oil products and armed with ideas from a new generation of engineers, refinery managers began trimming costs by eliminating jobs through attrition and layoffs. When they had large maintenance jobs, they brought in cheaper outside contractors. Managers also altered work rules to combine craft jobs (such as welder and pipefitter) and require operators to perform more maintenance duties. Most controversially, many refineries introduced a new position called “universal mechanic,” tasked with multiple jobs previously done by several tradesmen. [29]

These job losses affected both white and minority workers, closing the narrow avenues of promotion only recently opened for the latter in refineries. Beginning in 1958, labor unrest spread throughout the industry, increasing OCAW’s attractiveness to hitherto independent unionists. In 1959, facing demotions and watching jobs disappear, workers at Baytown finally elected OCAW to represent them, a seemingly momentous victory after years of struggle. But few other victories followed. The national union was forced to cut back on organizing to defend its representation in existing OCAW refineries, where management was reasserting prerogatives to reorganize work, reclassify assignments, and award jobs to contractors. [30]

OCAW locals tried to forestall changes to their contracts by striking, but they were thwarted by a new management tactic. During strikes in 1959, refinery owners at Texas City and Port Arthur brought several refinery units back on-line using engineers, clerks, and supervisors—positions exempted from the bargaining unit by Taft-Hartley—forcing settlements in which the unions agreed to combine crafts and accept outside contractors on some maintenance jobs. The big showdown began in August 1962, when 5,200 unionists simultaneously struck Shell Oil’s three major refineries and chemical plants east of the Rocky Mountains at Wood River, Illinois; Norco, Louisiana; and Houston–Deer Park. Within three months, supervisors, engineers, and nontechnical staff brought all three refineries back close to full capacity. The unions held out as long as they could, creating bitter feelings on the picket lines and hardship in the communities. But the refineries continued to run smoothly, and the unions’ leverage evaporated. The unions at Wood River and Norco settled after six months. Deer Park workers held out for nearly a year, making it the longest strike in the history of OWIU-OCAW. [31]

The 1962–1963 Shell strike was a watershed for organized labor in U.S. refineries and chemical plants. Shell extracted significant concessions from the unions, including greater leeway for management in assigning work and a substantial work force reduction at all three refineries. The strike also demonstrated that in the age of automation, workers could no longer shut down a plant. As refineries reduced their work forces, OCAW’s national membership declined from its 1957 peak of 186,000 to 161,000 in 1965. The number of refinery workers nationwide briefly increased during the late 1970s with the construction of a few new plants, but the trend in employment and union membership in the industry since the 1950s has been downward. Labor-management confrontations shifted from being about workplace control issues to focusing on wages, benefits, and occupational health and safety matters. Meanwhile, technical and supervisory personnel grew proficient at operating refineries during strikes, limiting labor’s bargaining power on all issues. [32]

Although in its heyday the OWIU-OCAW had accommodated white supremacy, the union’s decline did not translate into greatly expanded opportunities for minorities. In the late 1960s, presidential orders prohibiting discrimination in federal projects forced refinery managers to dismantle what remained of the two-tier labor system. But when minorities and women finally won full access to refinery jobs, those positions no longer provided the economic benefits and job security that working-class white men had enjoyed in unionized refineries along the Gulf Coast a generation before. As in many other U.S. industries, the shrinking of refinery work forces during the last several decades worked against antidiscrimination measures. With fewer jobs available, racial polarization increased, and many white workers began to view unions as part of a “liberal establishment” whose affirmative action programs were giving minorities unfair advantages. The oil workers union endured, but as a mere remnant of its former self, surviving only through mergers with the United Paper Workers in 1999 and then with the United Steelworkers in 2005. [33]

For a time, refinery workers overcame the hurdles that frustrated the industrial union movement in the South. In the early twentieth century, the giant, expanding refining complexes on the upper Gulf Coast provided a path out of rural poverty for wave after wave of white and minority migrants. Beginning in the late 1930s, grassroots organizing, assisted by federal intervention, led to union victories that secured workers’ access to well-paying refinery jobs for many years. During the 1950s, however, technological change and the reassertion of managerial authority chipped away at union power until the workers’ chief weapon, the strike, was rendered ineffective. Organized labor never recovered, and the decline of unions offset some of the gains that minorities had finally achieved in their struggle for workplace equality. Where refinery workers once enjoyed exceptional success within the larger story of southern industrialization, they eventually fell victim to the same trends that weakened organized labor across the nation.


[1] Joseph A. Pratt, The Growth of a Refining Region (Greenwich, 1980), 93

[2] Ibid.; Melvin Rothbaum, The Government of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (New York, 1962), 4. Mexican and Mexican American workers were mainly in Texas. According to a 1943 Fair Employment Practices Commission survey, 59% of Mexican refinery workers in Texas were born outside the United States. See Emilio Zamora, Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs in Texas: Mexican Workers and Job Politics during World War II (College Station, 2009), 161. On the union organizing potential of different sectors of the industry, see Rothbaum, Government of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, 4–10.

[3] Timothy J. Minchin, Fighting against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II (Gainseville, 2005), 2–3; F. Ray Marshall, “Independent Unions in the Gulf Coast Petroleum Refining Industry—The Esso Experience,” Labor Law Journal, 12 (Sept. 1961), 823–40; F. Ray Marshall, “Some Factors Influencing the Upgrading of Negroes in the Southern Petroleum Refining Industry,” Social Forces, 42 (Dec. 1963), 186–95; F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 194–201.

[4] Ray Davidson, Challenging the Giants: A History of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union (Denver, 1988); Marshall, “Some Factors Influencing the Upgrading of Negroes in the Southern Petroleum Refining Industry,” 187.

[5] Pratt, Growth of a Refining Region, 153–62.

[6] Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 267; Sethuraman Srinivasan Jr., “The Struggle for Control: Technology and Organized Labor in Gulf Coast Refineries, 1913–1973” (Ph.D. diss., University of Houston, 2001), 30–31.

[7] Jersey Standard would later become Exxon. For years, its Texas subsidiary retained the name Humble Oil. Magnolia was the Texas subsidiary of Standard Oil of New York, later called Mobil Oil. For a succinct discussion of the corporate evolution of these companies, see William N. Greene, Strategies of the Major Oil Companies (Ann Arbor, 1985), 61–87, 125–58. On nonunion employee representation plans, see Bruce E. Kaufman, “The Case for the Company Union,” Labor History, 41 (Aug. 2000), 321–50; and Harvey O’Connor, History of the Oil Workers International Union (CIO) (Denver, 1950), 1–17.

[8] On the Employees Federation at Baytown, see Henrietta M. Larson and Kenneth Wiggins Porter, History of Humble Oil and Refining Company: A Study in Industrial Growth (New York, 1959), 94–104, 350–89; Marshall, “Independent Unions in the Gulf Coast Petroleum Refining Industry,” 824; and Herbert Werner, “Labor Organizations in the American Petroleum Industry,” in The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Energy, 1899–1959, ed. Harold F. Williamson, et al. (Evanston, 1963), 831–32.

[9] Pratt, Growth of a Refining Region, 170.

[10] Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 55–59.

[11] O’Connor, History of the Oil Workers International Union, 29–39; Davidson,Challenging the Giants, 61–91. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935).

[12] Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 103–20; Srinivasan, “Struggle for Control,” 45–67.National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937). On the independent unions, see Michael Botson, “We’re Sticking By Our Union: The Battle for Baytown, 1942–1943,” Houston History, 8 (Spring 2011), 8–14; and Marshall, “Independent Unions in the Gulf Coast Petroleum Refining Industry,” 827.

[13] Pratt, Growth of a Refining Region, 205–8; Marshall, “Independent Unions in the Gulf Coast Petroleum Refining Industry,” 827.

[14] Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 151.

[15] Ibid., 121–27.

[16] Ibid., 146.

[17] Figures from Ernest Obadele-Starks, Black Unionism in the Industrial South (College Station, 2001), 79–80; and Marshall, “Some Factors Influencing the Upgrading of Negroes in the Southern Petroleum Refining Industry,” 188. Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 150–51, 267; Marshall, “Some Factors Influencing the Upgrading of Negroes in the Southern Petroleum Refining Industry,” 189, 192–93.

[18] Quoted in Obadele-Starks, Black Unionism in the Industrial South, 77. Pratt, Growth of a Refining Region, 93; Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 109; O’Connor, History of the Oil Workers International Union, 314–15. A month later, a white mob descended on a black section of shipyard workers in neighboring Beaumont, burning buildings and attacking residents before Beaumont officials declared martial law. James A. Burran, “Violence in an ‘Arsenal of Democracy’: The Beaumont Race Riot, 1943,” East Texas Historical Journal, 14 (Spring 1976), 39–52.

[19] Srinivasan, “Struggle for Control,” 50–53.

[20] Quoted in Obadele-Starks, Black Unionism in the Industrial South, 76.

[21] In 1942, a smaller Humble refinery in Ingleside, Texas, near Corpus Christi, had chosen the Oil Workers’ International Union over the Employees Federation, giving the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) a toehold in Jersey Standard. But in 1945, the company shut down and dismantled the plant, putting employees at its other refineries on notice about Jersey Standard’s determination to keep its operations free of outside unions. Pratt, Growth of a Refining Region, 174; Employees Federation Bulletin, no. 11, Oct. 27, 1942, case file 5945, Records of the National Labor Relations Board, RG 25 (National Archives, College Park, Md.); Clyde Johnson, The Battle for Baytown (Berkeley, 1984), 169. Clyde Johnson led the CIO organizing campaign at Baytown in 1942.

[22] Zamora, Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs in Texas, 159–80.

[23] O’Connor, History of the Oil Workers International Union, 52–57.

[24] Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 163–73, 236–39.

[25] The strike excluded California plants that directly supplied the Korean War effort. Ray Davidson, Turmoil and Triumph: The First 50 Years of Local 4-367; A History of Pasadena, Texas, Local 4-367 of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union, AFL-CIO, for the Period, 1933–1983 (Pasadena, 1983), 61, 74, 82–83; Werner, “Labor Organizations in the American Petroleum Industry,” 842–44.

[26] National Petroleum News editorial quoted in Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 223; Marshall, “Independent Unions in the Gulf Coast Petroleum Refining Industry,” 827; Pratt, Growth of a Refining Region, 177–79; Srinivasan, “Struggle for Control,” 45–67.

[27] For a discussion based on field interviews conducted during 1960–1962, see Marshall, “Some Factors Influencing the Upgrading of Negroes in the Southern Petroleum Refining Industry,” 188–95.

[28] Edward J. Williams, “The Impact of Technology on Employment in the Refining Industry in Texas, 1947–1966” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas–Austin, 1971).

[29] Marshall, “Independent Unions in the Gulf Coast Petroleum Refining Industry,” 828–32.

[30] Ibid., 829; Milden J. Fox Jr., “The Impact of Work Assignments on Collective Bargaining in the Petroleum Refining Industry on the Texas Gulf Coast” (Ph.D. diss., Texas A&M University, 1969).

[31] Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 273. On this strike, see Tyler Priest, “Labor’s Last Stand in the Refinery: The Shell Oil Strike of 1962–1963,” Houston History, 4 (Spring 2008), 5–13.

[32] Data from Davidson, Challenging the Giants, 282, 292, 317; and Pratt, Growth of a Refining Region, 180–83.

[33] On how this problem has affected American labor in general, see Robert H. Zieger,American Workers, American Unions (Baltimore, 1994).


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