Alberta tar sands, early twentieth century.
Image from Wikimedia.

At a campsite fifty miles north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, deep in the tar sands region of northern Canada, twenty-five oil men and women—electricians, engineers, and construction workers who had built a snaking network of flotation cells and pipes to separate sand from oil—found themselves stranded. Their employer, the Pacer Promec Energy Corporation, folded in early March and they had no way to get home. A picture of the abandoned workers surfaced online and Canadian media converged on the oil field.

“To treat people like that, you know, it isn’t fair,” one of the stranded workers, too afraid of retribution to reveal his name, told a CTV News reporter.

The incident provoked some mild outrage and eventually Canadian Natural Resources Limited, the massive oil conglomerate that leases the sands from the Canadian government, chartered a plane to fly the workers home.

It is no surprise that the companies who profit from energy extraction—from Canadian Natural Resources Limited to Saudi ARAMCO—often prioritize earnings over the welfare of employees. This dynamic dates back over 150 years when the industrial world ran on coal and the lives of miners were considered disposable by the network of industrialists Upton Sinclair referred to as “King Coal.”

Obscuring the exploitation of workers in the energy sector is perhaps easier today, when outposts on the far fringes of civilization—in remote shale fields and on deep water drilling platforms—have replaced last century’s more visible coal mines and the towns that popped up around them.

So it’s not surprising that amid the cacophony of voices commenting on the energy sector—the drop in fossil fuel prices signals, variously, the end of Big Oil’s ecological rampage for environmentalists, the vindication of US alliances with Gulf oil producers for neoconservatives, the need for even more drilling according to drill-baby-drillers—the labor of actually producing and extracting energy attracts surprisingly little attention. This is true even among the environmentalists who loathe big oil. Insofar as energy is political at all, it is part of debates about global warming, or refracted through the geopolitical horse race between the US, its allies, and its enemies.

This wasn’t always so. The plight of workers at the dawn of the industrial revolution—and in particular the condition of energy workers in the coal fields in England and the US—helped lay bare the human cost of rapid “development” and the brutal priorities of the capitalist industrialists who most clearly benefited from the industrial revolution.

It was Friedrich Engels’ exposure to coal workers that helped sharpen his critique of capitalism four years before he helped write the Communist Manifesto. In 1844 Friedrich Engels’ father sent him to Manchester, England to work in a family-owned textile mill and cure the young Engels of his radical sympathies. He instead took up with a working-class Irish woman and began documenting conditions in Manchester’s slums—especially those of coal workers. Engels was struck by the rampant child labor in the coal mines. “For watching the [mine shaft] doors the smallest children are usually employed, who thus pass twelve hours daily, in the dark, alone,” he observed in “The Mining Proletariat.” Engels wrote the essay at the age of twenty-four, and published it in a series he called The Condition of the Working Class in England, a wrenching if uneven, collection of dispatches on the industrial revolution’s underclass.

Above all, Engels emphasized the danger and instability of the work done in the mines, noting that the Manchester Guardian newspaper reported on two to three fatalities a week in the Lancaster coal chutes alone. This casualty rate provoked little to no concern from the authorities in England. Engels noted that “no human being outside the police force troubles himself about them.”

The publication of “The Mining Proletariat” inserted Engels into a fierce debate raging among European intellectuals that would come to be known as “The Social Question.” The dilemma, as Tony Judt put it, was between progress and social justice: “How could the virtues of economic progress be secured in light of the political and moral threat posed by the condition of the working class?” But while most European elites debating the Social Question obsessed over preventing a worker’s rebellion, Engels and his ilk agitated for one.

It’s no mere coincidence that Engels chose the coal mines as a case study through which to indict the worst excesses of European capitalism. As the historian E.P. Thompson has famously noted, the Industrial Revolution had a two pronged and at times paradoxical effect: real wages inched up and new technology proliferated, yet “intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, [and] increasing human misery” were wrought on the working class.

This predicament was felt perhaps most strongly in the mines that powered industrialization: for much of the nineteenth century—and into the twentieth—working in the “energy sector” could be a fatal assignment. Workers in coalfields on both sides of the Atlantic experienced a backwards leap in standards of living. Life expectancy on average was a full ten years behind non-energy workers. The innovations that increased the productivity of extraction also cheapened the lives of coal workers; dangerous hydraulic drills known as “widow-makers” rapidly exposed new veins of coal, while routinely killing their operators.

Not surprisingly, miners became some of the most aggressive trade unionists in the industrializing world. In the United Kingdom, the movement for universal suffrage known as “chartism” drew its most militant strength from coal country in the North. And by the 1880s in the United States, coal miners had successfully forced owners to peg wages to standards of living instead of coal prices—an impressive achievement even by modern standards.

“There seems to be some mysterious connection between striking with a pick at a coal seam and striking with idle words and sometimes violence against owners.”

“Since 1870 the coal trade of England and America has been in a state of constant and chronic confusion on account of strikes,” the Chicago Tribune observed in an 1875 editorial on the state of labor unrest in coal-powered societies on both sides of the Atlantic. “There seems to be some mysterious connection between striking with a pick at a coal seam and striking with idle words and sometimes violence against owners.”

In the end, industrial capitalism’s reliance on coal perversely worked to generate modern forms of democratic government. In Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell demonstrates meticulously how coal workers (and their sometimes allies in the railroad workers unions) wielded disproportionate power in industrializing societies. Located at the locus of production—in mines, near railroad tracks, and away from the prying eyes of overseers—these workers could impose a sort of veto power over industrial development.

At the same time, in the mines of Northern England and across the Midwestern United States, the brutality of coal work helped forge a new kind of political consciousness that clarified the exploitation baked into the nineteenth-century economy. Since coal miners were uniquely positioned to organize and strike, they succeeded in pressing not only for better working conditions, but also for more inclusive and democratic forms of government.

The advent of widespread oil production in the early twentieth century changed the balance of forces. It’s a complicated and contested history, but Mitchell argues that the physical properties of oil—and the particularities of oil extraction—ended up favoring big business and oligarchical politics. No longer could workers meet in secret in underground mines and obstruct boxcars full of coal. The new form of fossil fuel flowed directly out of the ground, into pipelines, and required the help of skilled technicians, not a massive proletariat. Mitchell observes that “the flow of oil could not readily be assembled into a machine that enabled large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power,” This frustrated political progress.

Today, workers are almost entirely absent from the conversation about energy. The impact on labor is barely even an afterthought in what has become a sustained public debate about plummeting oil prices and their political impact.

The diversification of fossil fuel sources—coal, oil, and later natural gas—also divided energy workers. When coal miners took on Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, she famously broke the backs of what had arguably been the most powerful union in the industrialized world. By the late twentieth century, controlling access to the UK’s coal was simply not enough leverage to take on the conservative British government.

Today, workers are almost entirely absent from the conversation about energy. The impact on labor is barely even an afterthought in what has become a sustained public debate about plummeting oil prices and their political impact. Environmentalists like Naomi Klein are hailing low oil prices as a “gift” for the climate change movement—an opportunity to press for renewable energy. Meanwhile, geopolitical scorekeepers like Thomas Friedman see a win for the good guys: “The trend line for petro-dictators is not so good. America today has a growing advantage,” he predicted last year in a typically self-confident column.

And what of workers? Today’s miners and oilmen wield far less power and make far more money than their twentieth century counterparts but conflicts between energy workers and their bosses continue to rage. Conditions reminiscent of nineteenth-century coal mines persist in the oil economies of the Persian Gulf. Closer to home, energy companies still regard miners and rig operators as disposable. The stranded miners in the Canadian tar sands stand in for a workforce at the whim of a politically powerful and negligent industry.

It’s true that in many respects energy workers in the developed world now enjoy levels of comfort previous generations could never have imagined: in 2014, the 500,000 or so employees in the energy extraction industry in the US earned three times the average private sector wage. But since oil prices dipped late last year, companies have aggressively cut “capital investment.” That means massive layoffs. Over the past two months, Halliburton cut 8 percent of its overall workforce (5,200 to 6,400 jobs), the Texas oil giant Baker Hughes let go 11 percent of its workforce and the oilfield services company Schlumberger laid off 9,000 people. A total of 75,000 oil workers were let go in the fourth quarter of 2014 alone.

With oil prices so low, expensive techniques like fracking and deep-water mining are also less lucrative. And energy companies in the US and Canada—where fracking and deep drilling enjoyed a boom over the last decade—have now scaled down production. The cuts have reached such a level of intensity that Saudi oil companies are now directly recruiting from unemployed oil workers from the US and Canada. Last month ARMACO launched a direct appeal to laid-off frackers for work in the Saudi oil fields. “[These] recruiting efforts are akin to a Chinese factory running a US factory out of business, then trying to hire the unemployed workers to improve operations in China,” Michael Webber, an associate professor at the University of Texas and deputy director of the Energy Institute, told Bloomberg. But the Saudi Oil companies haven’t exactly run US companies out of business. In fact, in the midst of the lean times, companies have maintained boom-level dividends to shareholders; in other words, while wageworkers are let go, investors are fully insulated (for now) from the hurt.

As oil companies shed full time employees to weather the price downturn, they are turning towards temporary workers and contractors as a cost saving-measure. Mazen Labban, an expert on labor in the oil industry at Rutgers, argues that the high levels of compensation for oil employees masks the wholesale replacement of union employees with contract workers. The twenty-four abandoned contract workers from Pacer Promec Energy Corporation are just a slice of that trend.

Matters got so bad last month that oil workers in the United Steelworkers Union (USW) called for the most significant strike in a generation. More than 6,500 oil workers at six major facilities launched the largest oil labor action in nearly forty years after negotiations with management broke down. A central demand of union organizers was to reverse this flood of contract non-union workers hired to operate machinery, perform maintenance, and increase overall workforce efficiency. Shell Oil, which negotiated with the union on behalf of Texaco and Chevron, refused to budge on the question of contract workers, claiming they help “accommodate economic cycles and maintenance schedules.” Indeed, squeezing more efficiency out of oil workers is a trend that can be traced back to the 1980s, when oil companies “financialized” their assets, and embarked on a campaign to increase the productivity of each individual worker.

Though complete data on oil work is hard to come by, Labban at Rutgers has managed to show that average weekly overtime work in refineries nearly tripled from 3.8 in 1979 to 9.7 in 2012. In the same period, the total refinery workforce was cut in half. Even before the price drop and recent round of layoffs, refinery work had become, in the words of Labban “one of the most labor intensive and labor disciplining industries.”

Union leaders echoed these very concerns during last month’s strike: “They totally grab hold of our schedules to the point that the workers have no family life. I call it ‘management by stress’,” southern California union leader Dave Campbell told In These Times. But after a six-week work stoppage that extended from Texas to Louisiana the union backed down, and signed a contract that included a 12 percent wage increase but didn’t resolve the larger question over contractors.

Some rank-and-file members are understandably dissatisfied, but had no real choice but to give up. “I voted against this contract,” one frustrated oil worker at the Tesoro Carson refinery near Los Angeles said. “But after seven weeks on the picket line, with the union not paying benefits, a lot of guys were frustrated and just wanted to get back to work.”

It’s easy to view these oilmen, and the miners, frackers, and refinery workers who draw a paycheck from companies like Chevron, as foot soldiers of climate change, or at least as sucklings on the oil-stained teats of big energy.

Throughout the 1990s, unions did get in bed with climate-change deniers. The AFL-CIO, of which United Steels is an affiliate, explicitly opposed The Kyoto Proposal and the Rio Treaty on Climate Change, arguing that international agreements would result in “unfair and unnecessary job loss in developed economies.” The AFL-CIO did not make fighting climate change an agenda item until 2006, decades after scientists reached a consensus on the scope and immediacy of the crisis. Workers were understandably concerned that environmental regulation would threaten their jobs, just as free trade agreements had just a few years before.

But now there’s a growing clarity that—as Engels and Thompson observed of the nineteenth century—energy profits do not translate into better working conditions. And that when the market turns downward, the safety and compensation of workers suffers.

The stranded tar sands workers in Canada are victims of the same rapacious model of energy extraction that pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s the energy companies, and their allies in Washington and Riyadh, that profit from the twin plagues of labor abuse and environmental ruin.

Furthermore, there’s a direct link between energy companies’ profit maximization models and the environmental degradation they are most notorious for. Most famously, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an exhaustive government investigation found that the “accident” was “primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure.”

As part of a sector that’s doing irreparable damage to our environment, energy workers can be hard to sympathize with. But there’s a natural fraternity between ecology and labor. After all, the stranded tar sands workers in Canada are victims of the same rapacious model of energy extraction that pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s the energy companies, and their allies in Washington and Riyadh, that profit from the twin plagues of labor abuse and environmental ruin. A strong alliance between workers and environmentalist—the greens and reds—has all the better chance of defeating them.

Avi Asher-Shapiro

Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, and a graduate student at NYU. He was a 2011-2012 Fulbright Fellow in Cairo, Egypt and his work has appeared in Salon, Vice, The Nation, and National Geographic, among others.

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