Organizing Oil in North Dakota

John McCollum

June 13, 2022

Perhaps no single commodity has played as important a role in the development of the political left worldwide as oil. Only steel and coal come close to touching its role in both radicalizing workers and halting the normal operation of capitalist economies. The nationalization of the oil industry played a pivotal role during the Mexican Revolution, the decision to strike by oil workers in Iran led to the downfall of the Shah, and oil continues to play a major role in the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Indeed, the rise of Islamism in the Middle East – a key node in the global oil industry – was in part propelled by reactionary regimes' desire to counter the rise of a militant left-wing oil proletariat.

In contrast to this history of struggle and organizing in the Middle East and Latin America, the oil workers of the contemporary United States have no similar role. In a series of field interviews with the representatives of eight major trade unions during the summer of 2019, union officials spoke of the difficulty of organizing even the most skilled and advantaged workers in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Shale region. These interviews shed light on some of the potential barriers faced by the US Left in organizing a historically very organizable sector.

Obstacles to Organizing

A frequent complaint of union representatives was that oil workers, many of whom were temporary or itinerant, were hostile to union membership. Workers from the Permian Basin oil and gas fields of Texas and Oklahoma simply did not want to join a union. This type of a priori hostility to union membership is derived from several factors. On a most basic level, these single male workers were often not interested in paying union dues for the promise of health insurance and pension programs. Instead, they only wanted “more money on the check”. Moreover, organizers’ inability to demonstrably raise hourly pay did not generate a great deal of enthusiasm. However, there were also broader political factors and more specifically the widespread belief that unions served as front groups for the Democratic Party.

Despite President Obama’s loosening of environmental regulations to promote oil and gas drilling on public lands, workers saw the Democrats as representing the environmental movement. The environmental movement, in their view, seeks to eliminate or reduce gas and oil drilling, their source of income. Of course, this view does not reflect the reality as the Democrats are unwilling to make any of the necessary changes to truly combat climate change. However, the issue was one of perception - Democrats equal environmental movement, and environmental movement equals an end to gas and oil drilling. At the same time, these workers’ social and religious conservatism also made them hostile to union membership and its close association with the Democratic Party. This is particularly significant as many union officials expressed similar sentiments but emphasized the need to “vote for their union”. Time and again, the experience of US politics shows that union membership is a key requisite of voting Democrat, even among the “white working class”. Even in the Bakken, the need to vote Democrat to protect the union’s position prevailed among the leadership, even as they disagreed with the Democrats’ social liberalism. As Clinton’s unexpected losses in the historically unionized Rust Belt states showed in 2016, ignoring the needs of workers, union or not, is an electoral disaster the Democrats refuse to recognize. Coupling a credible union agenda with an environmental agenda is possible for electoral victory, but doubtful under the Democrats.

One interesting angle on this group of workers is the spatial and organizational nature of oil work. The Bakken is a bewildering mix of oil companies, drilling companies, surveying companies, and so on. While some major oil and gas companies like Hess and Haliburton are active in major parts of the industry in the region, there are numerous “mom and pop” drilling, transportation, refining, and construction firms in the area. Because of this, few workplaces look like the centralized industrial workplaces of the factory floor. One major problem in organizing the Bakken is that a great deal of work is done by short-term contracts. Union labor in one shop must compete to win bids on work from non-unionized shops that can beat them by lowering costs, especially wages. Unions in the area manage to survive by providing trained workers to complete jobs well and in a timely manner. Put another way, union labor must compete with an almost entrepreneurial spirit against non-union labor. Combine this with the hostility of many workers toward union membership, organization is a major uphill battle.