Cat Crackers and Picket Lines: Organized Labor in US Gulf Coast Oil Refining
This essay analyzes the rise and decline of organized labor in the oil refining industry along the U.S. Gulf Coast and explains how union organizing in the American South was not quite the abject failure southern labor historians that have portrayed it to be. As was the case across this racially segregated region, labor organizing in refining, beginning in the Great Depression, consisted of a dual struggle, by all workers for dignity, job security, and workplace control, and by racial minorities for workplace equality. During 1945–1955, the Oil Workers International Union (OWIU) and its successor, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, built on it organizing success to obtain concessions on wages and job security in most of the major Gulf Coast plants. Although Gulf Coast refineries remained segregated and simmered with racial tensions, they also had lower racial barriers to employment than in other southern industries, thanks in part to the union movement. OCAW, however, was not able to cling to industrial power long. In the 1950s, management discovered another way to divide and conquer workers, not so much through the manipulation of racial divisions, but through the contracting out of jobs and other manpower reductions made possible by advances in technology. These developments undermined organized labor’s main source of workplace control: the strike. OCAW remained a large union with national clout through the 1970s, but the focus of bargaining narrowed to compensation and occupational health and safety issues. The transformation of refinery work thus foreshadowed labor market trends not only in the South but also across the United States.