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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.

The Road to Organizing

What do we as an interested Left need to do with such groups? There are a few viable paths. One, there is the recognition that gas and oil are vulnerable to the same types of swings as any other economic sector. Right now, gas and oil in the US are costing Americans dearly. However, the tick up in interest rates by the Federal Reserve, the difficulty in finding labor (amazing, given the high wages that drew thousands to the Bakken during the last recession), and nearing some point of “peak oil” in the Bakken region means that there isn’t likely to be an increase in pumping. Downward is the way the industry is likely to go. Couple that with increased hostility from locals and an empowered Native American movement in the region and the oil worker finds himself in the usual precarious position as the rest of the American working class.

In such a situation, a union formation ready to fight to preserve its members’ living standards might have a convincing argument. “Getting more money on the check” or at least preserving it could happen. Similarly, arguing for severance pay, health insurance, and pension programs might be more appealing than it was for workers at the height of the boom. One barrier to such an approach may also be disappearing. At the height of the oil boom, the respondents in my study said a primary problem with further organizing efforts was union members outside the Bakken, but still in their labor locals, needing work after the 2008 recession. Workers in urban areas around Minneapolis lost employment when the construction industry dried up; thanks to their union locals, they were connected to needy employers in the Bakken. Handling this issue for their members prevented the small union locals from organizing new shops, or even working on recruiting new young workers into their apprenticeship and training programs. Unemployment as of this writing sits at an official 3.6%; compare that to the discrepancy between high national unemployment after 2008 and the dire need for labor in the Bakken and the situation for organizing has changed some. This could give renewed power to organizing and also lead to the social and economic conditions that engender the kind of solidarity that grows a union movement.

At a broader level, this also may say something about the institutional environment around unions in the contemporary period. Unions in the US are organized around single employers, not geographic or sectoral negotiations around wages. The problem of many small employers in the region and the downward pressure on wages this causes could be mitigated by a regional contract covering workers in the entire Bakken. While US law is behind this at the national level, the state of North Dakota could be heavily pressured to accommodate such a demand, especially if the nearly 50% of the state budget tied up in oil and gas taxes were threatened by mass walkouts or other disruptive tactics. Under a regional contract, workers could bargain together rather than in many separate units, strengthening their position.

Labor and the Democratic Party

Lastly, there is the issue of division within the broader Left. My position is that the “Labor Left” would be best served by turning against the Democratic Party. For all its subservience, labor in the US has gained little. By divorcing itself from the Democratic Party, the association that unions and the Democratic Party automatically “go together” ends. While we shouldn’t concede to workers’ social conservatism, unions could get them in and gain their loyalty to a political formation that does both social policies demanded by the broader Left and accomplishes a wide range of economic measures. In such as space, they have a better chance of becoming a part of broader coalitions and still adding their numbers to organized labor.

Also, when it comes to the environment, Democrats have done so little that fears of rigorous environmental policies damaging the living standards of oil workers are nothing but right-wing propaganda. Face-to-face organizing can disrupt the stranglehold that Fox News and conservative talk radio have on the region, but this must be accompanied by credible plans for worker readjustment, pension programs for early retirement, healthcare for long-term injuries sustained in fossil fuel work, and retraining for workers displaced by de-carbonization. The Democrats have no credible commitment to either environment or economic redistribution. A Left formation can fill that gap.

The union conditions for oil workers in the US are crucially different from those of their counterparts in different parts of the world. Consequently, we should develop different tactics and strategies to organize them. We also should begin laying the groundwork for a post-fossil fuel future that is both ecologically balanced and equitable. By devoting time and resources to oil workers, we can get ahead of these changes and make them a valuable set of allies for the coming decades of change and struggle.

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