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This Day in Labor History: December 15, 1989

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On December 15, 1989, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers come to an agreement with the German chemical company BASF for the company’s largest plant, in Geismer, Louisiana, after a five year lockout. This unlikely victory in a horrible time for private sector unions demonstrated the potential for meaningful solidarity between labor and environmentalists to pry open a recalcitrant polluter.

While unionization in the Louisiana chemical corridor was low, the OCAW organized the Wyandotte Chemical Company that opened in Geismar, Louisiana in 1958. A Michigan-based company, it was used to unions and so did not particularly object when its workers chose to unionize. There was a significant strike in 1970, but mostly the union and the company managed to work things out. That year though, the German giant BASF bought out Wyandotte. It was less happy to have a union workforce, even if it was used to that in Germany. That BASF came out of I.G. Farben, infamous for its crimes during the Holocaust, may not have relevance to this action, but is always worth noting anyway.

When BASF took over, not much initially changed. The workers knew they were working with dangerous chemicals, but also knew they were making a lot of money compared to the rest of the regional economy, so mostly made their peace with it. They didn’t identify with environmentalists at all and worried that new laws would impact their jobs, something the company happily fostered with them. Moreover, most of the workers were white and commuted from Baton Rouge while most of the local residents of Geismar were Black and couldn’t get jobs in the factory due to discrimination.

The contract between OCAW and BASF ended in 1984. BASF planned to bust the union. At the very least, they wanted significant concessions. But ideally, they wanted to be rid of it. The company demanded the end of seniority rights to switch jobs, instead wanting to control who could move around. It also wanted to cut wages and increase health care costs paid by the workers. This was right at the moment when the idea of unionized workers paying for health care was still basically unheard of, even though we think it’s inevitable that workers pay into their health care today. The OCAW wasn’t having it. So, in June, BASF locked out 370 workers. The initial response to the lockout, other than the initial shock of it, was to engage in pretty traditional union activities. But letter writing and petitions didn’t matter much. Neither did picketing or traditional types of union boycotts.

In order to win this labor dispute, the OCAW needed help from allies. Going back to the 1970s, it was the leader in creating relationships with the environmental movement. Its 1973 strike against Shell Oil led to environmental organizations joining a boycott of the company and cutting up their gas company credit cards. So the union had preexisting allies and it used them. That included large American green organizations such as the Sierra Club, international groups such as Greenpeace, and German groups such as the Green Party. Even though workers in the plant had previously taken an anti-environmental stance, they were willing to try these alliances based on their union’s advice. Moreover, the workers knew a lot about BASF’s environmental practices and could seek to embarrass the company with that information if they wanted. Increasingly, that’s exactly what they did want.

One strategy to combat unionbusting that became popular in the 1980s was the corporate campaign. The idea here is that multinational corporations have many vulnerabilities, if you can reach them. They have sites around the globe. They own many brands. They have connections with banks and advertisers. Meanwhile your plant is, well, in Geismer, Louisiana, not exactly on anyone’s radar screen. So, the idea went, the way to win your action was to make it national or global. That of course requires allies since a small union can’t really do that. Thus, the place for the environmentalists. It also became very easy to compare BASF with Union Carbide, just off its killing of thousands of people in Bhopal, India, as union researchers came to understood that the two companies shared a lot of the same problems of pollution and workplace safety.

Luckily for the workers, BASF had a lot of dirt to uncover and a lot of people did not like the company. Turns out that they were selling computer parts to the apartheid government of South Africa. Whoops. So that was exposed and the company had to stop that profitable practice. Then there was the environmental side of this. Reports came out about how much the company poisoned rivers everywhere it operated, from the Mississippi to the Rhine. Environmentalists globally saw BASF as a monstrous company and so happily helped. This also shifted the conversation about the Geismer plant away from somewhat predictable discussions about wages and seniority that did not motivate potential allies to the terrible workplace safety of the plant, which tapped into the environmental community. This also woke up some environmental consciousness among the workers, who began to see that environmentalists were not opposed to unions and who realized just what the company was doing to the land and water.

In 1987, BASF ended the lockout for its production workers, though with a crappy deal, but not the 100 maintenance workers. That was in part because most of the union leadership existed in the maintenance division and the company wanted them gone. Of course, the company had hired replacement workers at lower wages. Core to the critique of the replacement workers was that they did not know how to do the job well and so faced greater danger for lower wages.

This became probably the longest lockout in American history. At the time, the AFL-CIO stated it knew of none longer and I don’t think that has been surpassed since. It finally ended in December 1989, when the union and company came to an agreement and workers who still wanted those jobs could return, five and one-half years later. The final deal was reasonable and shows that there was never a good reason for BASF to lock out the workers. BASF ended the lockout after it realized that the union-environmentalist alliance was going to stop it from being able to build a new plant in Geismer until this was done and the company cleaned up the old plant. So it caved. The company gave an immediate 2 percent pay increase and then 3 1/2 percent in 1990 and 1991, plus picking up all of the increases in health care costs for the next two years. In the aftermath of the lockout, the local workers remained staunch members of the environmentalist community, often fighting against the chemical industry’s treatment of land, water, and people of southern Louisiana.

This post borrowed from Timothy Minchin, Forging a Common Bond: Labor and Environmental Activism during the BASF Lockout.

This is the 419th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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