Bayway Refinery, a facility of Phillips 66 located in Linden, NJ, is the largest petrochemical complex on the East Coast of the United States. Well-known to travelers on the New Jersey Turnpike (which bisects the plant from Carteret to Elizabeth) it presents a powerful and intimidating picture of modern industrial technology at its peak.
Tall flares light the nighttime sky with burning gases; plumes of steam and vapors hang over the towering structures and vessels; miles of interlacing pipes run together in a maze of twisted steel. But even more amazing then the obvious technological accomplishments is the story of the struggle of the industrial workers at this production site for a legitimate Union and their ultimate victory over the world's richest corporation.
Founded in 1908 as a more modern counterpart to the Bayonne Refinery (the world's first great petroleum processing plant which opened in 1877) Bayway was the centerpiece of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, dowager queen of the "Seven Sisters" (the fragmented remains of Rockefeller's great Standard Oil Trust). The new facility, as was the custom in Bayonne, relied heavily on immigrant workers to handle the hot, harsh and dangerous jobs involved in oil refining. Faced with an extremely labor-intensive means of production, management was especially alert to signs of worker unrest and organization. This concern intensified after labor disputes at the Rockefeller mines in Ludlow, Colorado (1913) and the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayonne (1915-1916) had resulted in the deaths of strikers and their families. With public opinion solidly condemning the vicious treatment of the Rockefeller's employees, Standard Oil sought a quick solution to the workers' dissatisfaction by hiring labor consultants (surely a first in 1916 and an omen of the future course management would take) to devise a plan to restore labor peace to the plants and avoid bad publicity.
The consultants, Clarence Hicks and Mackenzie King (soon to become Prime Minister of Canada) had devised a clever scheme to placate the militants and share some of the immense riches generated by the oil business. A new system of "Industrial Representation" was created. Elected employee representatives were given the right to bring grievances to upper management on wages, hours and working conditions. The company committed to providing wages equal to any employer, vacation pay, job security, training, life insurance and disability pay. (In the 1920' the plan was further refined to include a stock purchase plan as well.) As the forerunner of the new "Welfare Capitalism", the plan succeeded beyond anyone's dreams. The embryonic Union movement in Standard Oil became stillborn and refinery jobs became the most desired occupation of blue collar workers.
Modifications to the industrial representation plan were forced by the implementation of the Wagner Act in 1935 and the subsequent ban on "company" Unions. But Standard Oil was quick to adapt to the new law and the "Independent" Unions that were formed closely resembled their predecessors and were almost totally subservient to management's wishes. With a fairly stable, well- paid and complacent workforce, the Standard Oil Company was able to dissuade even the most ardent Industrial Unions from mounting a viable organizing campaign.
The Oil Worker's International Union (OWIU), the predecessor of today's Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, challenged the farce of independent Unionism at Bayway before the labor board in 1942 and 1943. The resulting disestablishment election of the company dominated "Union" led up to a representation election held under NLRB supervision in 1943. Company control over their workers was demonstrated by the vote; 1660 for the Company Union, 456 for the OWIU. A small OWIU group was given recognition by the International as Local 512 and a feisty Boilermaker, Joseph Driscoll, served as Secretary and Chief Delegate from 1946 until 1948. The spirit of Industrial Unionism remained barely alive at Bayway.
The end of World War II brought a new type of industrial worker to Bayway, the young Veteran. With a combination of youthful ambition and battlefield experience, these second generation Americans eagerly sought the high paying jobs in the mills and factories of the industrial Northeast. At Bayway they quickly clashed with the entrenched collaborative culture of workers. Standard Oil jobs were handed down from father to son like an inheritance; Craft lines were set as much by religion and ethnicity as by skill (for example; Boilermakers were predominately Catholic and members of the Knights of Columbus; Machinists were Protestants and Masons). Foremen were all-powerful and could change procedure and rules at will. Process Operators, although ostensibly members of the wage ranks, acted as minor tyrants, going as far as to blackball unpopular workers from the units they controlled. The older immigrant workers, with little formal education and only rudimentary knowledge of English, were suspicious of the newcomers and any change to the status quo.
Bayway had weathered the depression in fairly good shape. Although there were some brief layoffs during the 1930s and job sharing was implemented for a time, employment after the war peaked at 5100 workers. The traditional Rockefeller system of paternalism had carried over into the post-war period. Workers participated in numerous company-sponsored activities; Bands, Softball, Baseball and Basketball teams, employee picnics and Christmas parties (complete with Standard Oil passing out gifts to children) and a company store offering a variety of products at discount prices. It was no wonder that Standard Oil Workers were considered the elite of the blue collar force of New Jersey.
But outside forces soon affected Bayway in ways that not even the Great Depression or World War II could manage. This increasing involvement of manager’s trained in Standard Oil’s southern refineries and the rapid technological advances which swept the refining industry during the 1950s placed the entire system of Welfare Capitalism in jeopardy. One by one, workers benefits and freedoms were scrutinized and cut back, if not eliminated. Craft lines were severely attacked and in 1957, the independent union agreed to a form of job consolidation over the protest of a large minority of workers. The resulting gains in efficiency resulted in a massive layoff of almost 1000 workers and split the Union into two camps. The majority, made up of the senior leaders of the independent union and its sympathizers, sought to continue the cooperative effort with management which had provided them rich rewards in the past; the vocal minority, made up of younger Veterans with no ties to past traditions wanted to stand up to management and viewed international unionism as their best strategy. Confrontation was not long in coming.
International Unions had long coveted access to the closed gates of the Standard Oil Refineries. The OWIU had mounted organizing attempts in Baytown and Baton Rouge in the 1940's but could never achieve bargaining status. Other Unions such as the Mine Workers and Operating Engineers also showed interest in organizing Standard Oil but their efforts had no success. In the late 1950's the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa made their bid. A two-pronged campaign in Baton Rouge and led by Hoffa himself. Speeches were made, money was spent but the result was the same - defeat. At Bayway the Teamsters, the OCAW, the Operating Engineers and the independent Union all competed in an NLRB election in 1960. The subsequent runoff between the two top choices - the OCAW and the independent - resulted in a 699 to 647 defeat for the OCAW, the closest an International Union had ever come to a win at Standard Oil. (Eventually the OCAW did win elections in Baytown, Texas and Billings, Montana. Today only Billings remains as an affiliate.)
In 1963 the OCAW at Bayway felt confident of victory. With a solid core of supporters and increasing dissatisfaction with the performance of the Independent Union, which had blackballed many of the OCAW supporters, a win by the OCAW seemed probable to many observers. Unfortunately, a combination of an under financed Union campaign and an all-out company effort to support the Independent Union undercut the OCAW's strength. After a massive propaganda campaign targeted at the wives of the workers and a "Get out and Vote" effort run with almost military precision, Standard Oil and its subservient Union defeated the OCAW by an embarrassing margin of 620 to 370. International Unionism seemed dead at Bayway.
The independent union victory celebration was short lived. Although the OCAW supporters had all but given up their hopes of achieving success, Management, (now that the threat of outside interference was gone) no longer had to treat their employees with kid gloves. Still convinced that a manpower surplus existed at Bayway, Standard Officials pushed hard during contract talks in 1964 to eliminate key Independent Unions representing the blue collar workers (The Petroleum Workers of Bayway, led at the time by John Coppa) and the salary workers group (The independent Petroleum Workers of New Jersey, led by Leonard Conte) were faced with the harsh choice of taking the company's offer or attempting a job action. In a confusing series of events, Union members authorized their executive committee to call a strike and, when talks broke down on the evening of October 13, 1964, workers walked off the job. (To this day, some Union leaders who were involved insisted that the "Strike" was really a company lock-out forced on the workers in order to expedite a series of planned manpower reductions.)
Events moved rapidly. Union members, with little direction from their leaders, gathered in a mob in front of the main plant entrance. OCAW supporters, even though they could not participate in the Independent Union, supported the strike enthusiastically and brought much needed organizational expertise to the picket line. Picket Captains were elected and a tight ring was thrown around the borders of the Plant. Inside the Refinery, supervision attempted to keep operations going. Trying to minimize movement through hostile pickets, Management kept Foremen in the Plant for long periods. The strikers, for most part, maintained discipline and good morale. There were scattered acts of violence and several arrests but these were exceptions. As the mass picketing began to affect product shipments out of the Plant, Esso received a court injunction limiting pickets on October 19, 1964. With no negotiations taking place, both sides dug in for a long struggle.
With the initial rush of enthusiasm over, the Strikers faced the reality of their position. Standing outside the Plant, watching supervision run their units (albeit in a haphazard fashion) with nothing but their hands and homemade picket signs to stop the increasing flow of truck and car traffic. Ham-strung by court orders in a death struggle with the all-powerful Standard Oil, with savings being quickly eroded as their income stopped and facing a gloomy Holiday Season - the Strikers began to realize the desperate situation they were in. Their leaders had already grasped the truth and began negotiations with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in an effort to balance the scales of power and bring Esso back to the bargaining table. Sensing an opportunity to organize, the Teamsters, under the leadership of International Vice-President Harold Gibbons, promised their support to the striking oil workers. Teamster picket signs were quickly distributed and strikers began to sign Union cards. (Almost 90 of the men on the line signed cards.)
Esso used the confusion over who really represented the workers to avoid meaningful bargaining. To settle the issue and force the resumption of talks, Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Contaldi of IBT Local 866 (designated as the parent Local for the Bayway workers until such time as they could manage their own Local) petitioned the LRB for a Certification Election.
Standard Oil once again swung their propaganda machine into action - this time to persuade its errant employees of the evils of the Teamsters. Handicapped by the inability to talk directly to the workers, management relied on sending letters to the strikers' homes in an effort to once again convince their wives that a change in Unions at Bayway would jeopardize their future. But this time the sermon fell on deaf ears. Embittered by the company's harsh treatment of its loyal employees and facing the prospect of losing everything they had, husbands and wives ignored the pleas of management. On November 4, 1964 in an historic vote, members of the wage bargaining unit voted 691 to 400 to affiliate with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. (A separate vote held for members of the Salary Bargaining Group resulted in a narrow defeat for the Teamsters - 119 to 107.) Strike benefits of $25.00 per week were quickly authorized by the International even though not one penny in dues was collected from the new members. As the strike dragged into its second month and Thanksgiving approached, IBT Local 560 donated a turkey to each striker's family.
Faced with the prospects of a nation-wide Teamster campaign against Esso products, Bayway management agreed to resume bargaining, this time with a coalition of former Independent Leaders, OCAW supporters and Teamster Officials. Talks dragged on and on as the strike moved through its second month. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to settling the strike was the company’s announcement that it planned on laying off 400 men. Ed Stromenger, a bargaining committee member, remembers, "Nine out of sixteen of us wouldn't sign the final contract. We had a lot of old timers that couldn't read or write. We knew that the company was going to get rid of them when we went back into the yard. The Teamsters said we had to sign, they really forced us in and those guys were laid off. Management said they couldn't do the job, yet they had built the yard without an education. But, they couldn't read the instrumentation. We couldn't do anything about it."
Harris, former Local President, said when interviewed, "I remember during the strike, it didn't take long for the Teamsters to find out who the strong Union members were. They brought us all to the hall and asked what is the stumbling block? We answered, if the company thought we were going to break up the seniority list, we won't end the strike. We had asked the International to give us three weeks, to do what we wanted. The Teamsters said they didn't want any violence. We were lolling down at the picket lines, while they had the cops down there. Everyone was going in and out at will. We did the best we could to bring it to an end. You know later on when the younger people looked at us as if we were too timid or afraid of the company, we would smile to ourselves.”
Harris continues, "Some of the worst on the picket lines were the ladies. We heard one night that there was going to be a rumble. We went to them and said 'take a break'. If there's something going on we did not want them to be there. A car caravan tried to get into the Plant and we wouldn't let them through. The ladies were right in there with us."
Howard Goldberger, lawyer of the Independent Union since 1955 said of that bargaining session, "John Coppa was the President of the Independent Union in 1964. I was representing them in the negotiations when the company provoked the strike. They could have avoided the strike and the Teamsters if they had agreed to another five cents across the board."
“During the strike the company decided that it had too many people and said they were going to layoff after the strike. When they informed us of that, we changed our negotiations to try to prevent it as much as we could. We came out with the six months notice for a layoff clause.” Goldberger added.
After 101 days, the struggle had finally ended - a new 22 month contract was signed and workers returned to their jobs, on January 22, 1965. "The biggest change from the independent Union was the ability to arbitrate grievances." states Paul Yurick, a member of the 866 Bargaining Committee and later President of Local 877. "The great Exxon Corporation did not like it one bit – they fought to the bitter end to stop the Union from enjoying this right."
The very first grievance filed was on behalf of 30 men that had been forced by the company to give back their severance pay in order to be rehired by Esso. (Laid off during the strike, they had been rehired 10 days later.) The first Arbitrator to rule in favor of the union was Arthur Stark in November of 1966. "The Company shall, forthwith, repay to all affected employees whatever sums they returned plus whatever interest or similar expenses the employees incurred in connection with returning the severance pay." The award was valued at over $250,000 and the company's contention that the grievance was not arbitratible was overruled.
The Company appealed this decision to the court system. It took seven years to finally extract the money from the company. In the November 1970 Teamster Newsletter the Union responded to the company's threat that it would take it to a higher court. "Local 877 will not weary of the fight but shall continue until justice triumphs.” Finally, in October 1971, the Union was notified "That all three Federal Court Judges voted unanimously in favor of the Teamsters. The only appeal left for the company was to the Supreme Court and they were turned down. In 1972 the men finally received their just due. (Although the Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Union interest and damages for the 5 1/2 years of appeals) A Teamster newsletter report stated that the Union's goal in 1966 was to reduce the amount of people the company wanted laid off. Early retirement allowances enabled long service employees to voluntarily retire at a greater pension than they would have been entitled to. For those men who wished to voluntarily resign, severance pay allowances were negotiated that were the most liberal in the oil industry. This brought the number of surplus employees to under 100. "The company had attempted to eliminate the seniority protection of the Strikers by forming two separate lay off pools. One Mechanical, and one Process. This would have resulted in long-term employees being released, and short term employees retained. Teamster negotiators repulsed this blatant attack on the strikers’ seniority. Seniority clauses were maintained which provided 'Last man hired at Bayway - First man to leave', regardless of where he worked in the Refinery."
One final act remained to be played out. The first day of the new agreement, management began to plot the ouster of the Teamsters from Bayway. Convinced that the vote held in November was an aberration brought about in the heat of the strike, supervisors began encouraging disgruntled leaders of the old Independent Union to lead a movement to decertify the IBT and return to the happy days of old. Playing upon old rivalries, charges of corruption and double dealing, their arguments fell on fertile ground. A newly formed group calling itself the Bayway Refinery and Chemical Workers Union began attacking the Teamsters and their Bayway representatives on a daily basis. Composed largely of discredited former Independent Union Leaders and Temporary Supervisors, the group did offer some valid criticisms of Teamster mistakes and unkempt promises.
Fortunately the new group had no real solutions to improve conditions at Bayway. On November 22, 1966 the showdown came in the form of another decertification election - this time pitting the Teamsters against the revived Independent Union. The blue collar wage group overwhelmingly reinforced its previous choice of Teamster affiliation. But, the Salary Group, forgetting its debt of loyalty, returned to its old independent ways. The Teamster's meanwhile had already reopened the contract regarding wages in 1966. The August issue of the Newsletter lists some main points of the wage reopener settlement of March 1966.
1. Promises to rehire immediately 35 to 40 men in response to the Unions justifications based on excessive overtime.
2. Red circled employees given equal to the 4 1/2 general increase. This was never part of the Company's offer.
3. Credits of 6 months to 18 months provided 89 employees with immediate pay increases ranging from 33 cents to 501/2 cents per hour ... These were the employees the company was disciplining because they defied the company in Oct. 1964. Only through the persistent efforts of the Teamster Bargaining Committee were they given any economic relief.
4. All employees received retroactive pay equal to 4 112 months of the increased pay in lump sum settlements -- in addition to their regular wage adjustments.
5. Nineteen employees in total will have returned to the Equipment Section as a result of the Teamster bargaining committee's efforts. (These were employees backed down out of their craft as the result of layoffs)
Along with fighting one of the most powerful corporations in the world, the Leadership of the Bayway Workers took on one of the most powerful Unions - the Teamsters. They wanted the right to be independently run by local leaders of their choice. Jack McCarthy who was the Chief Steward of Local 866 remembers, "When we joined the Teamsters, they told us if we got 1000 members we could have our own Charter." In fact the Bayway Workers were the largest group within Local 866. Ed Stromenger talks about the role Joe Driscoll played in the bid for independence. "Joe was a CIO man - we depended on him for advice. He said get your own Charter - 866 doesn't know about oil. So we tried asking for our own but couldn't get it. Russ Harris, Bill Ruane, Bob Morrison, Joe and myself used to have secret meetings. We decided to run Joe for Vice President and Russ for Trustee. Joe got elected. He went up to Len Conti, who headed 866 then in the Joint Council 73 office and said to him, 'We want our own charter.' They refused. We said, OK, in the next election, we'll take over the whole slate of 866."
On the day Joe Driscoll was informed, Russ Harris was working at the Pipestills. "I was on top of one of the towers and there was Joe yelling and screaming on Brunswick Ave. 'Come on down!!' That's when he told me, "We got our own charter."
In the June 1970 issue of the local's Newsletter there was the announcement that as of May 28, 1970 our local office had received the new 'Charter', Local #877 Affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The above picture, showing Teamsters Local 877 first Executive Board being sworn into office, appeared in the July 9, 1970 edition of the Linden Leader. Pictured above (front to rear) are: Joseph Driscoll, Paul Yurick, Russell Harris Sr., William Ruane, John Zeich, Andrew Sidlowski, Arthur Perez.
Read more (Local 877 throughout the 1970's...)