Over the past several weeks, Philly Thrive members have participated in a series of public meetings organized by the Mayor Jim Kenney’s Refinery Advisory Group. The stated purpose of these meetings has been to gather information from key stakeholders about the future of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery.
The way the process has been organized and the meetings have been facilitated has unfortunately exacerbated the centuries-old tactic of dividing working class people and pitting us against each other. In this case, the Mayor’s Advisory Group meetings have encouraged the divisions between two groups of people sorely hurting: workers who have been forced out of their union job at PES and residents whose community’s have long suffered the impacts of polluting industry with little-to-no benefit. With the complete absence of PES representatives in the room, fear, anger, and grief have found likely targets in each other instead of the companies and executives responsible for the refinery.
In terms of the City’s role, Philly Thrive recognizes the challenges of determining a course of action after the June 21st explosion at PES nearly missed killing 1.1 million people. The explosion has since turned a media spotlight onto PES’s role as the largest polluter in the Philadelphia, the impacts of the refinery on public health & safety, and the historic inability of the City to regulate PES’s emissions and protect residents from periodic accidents at the facility.
The situation the City finds itself in could have been significantly more favorable and less daunting had leaders heeded calls from residents to begin planning for the transition of PES years ago- and not waited until the issue literally could not be avoided. However, the difficulty of the task is no excuse for the City to facilitate tensions between workers and residents. We have provided concrete feedback and suggestions on how the City could improve the process here
In the meantime, we want to take the opportunity to reiterate, state, and clarify what we believe about our goal of winning back the Right to Breathe for all Philadlephians, as it pertains to the relationship between residents and refinery workers:
- As Thrive member Ms Sylvia Bennett says: “We are not against workers or against workers having a job to support their families. What we want is the air cleaned up so we can all breathe. We cannot breathe clean air with a refinery in the neighborhood. So that’s where we’re at. It is not our goal to argue with workers or attempt to change your mind.”
- One of Philly Thrive’s founding principles from 2015 reads: “We do not accept false solutions.” It goes on to say: “We will not accept half solutions, including transitions to natural gas or ones that leave out workers. We envision a just transition away from all fossil fuels that provides livelihoods for working families. We stand in solidarity with fossil fuel workers and demand a just transition with paths to sustainable living wage jobs.” Every Philly Thrive member who joins the organization engages with our Principles.
- We admit it has been very difficult to carve out substantial time in our organizing before this point to deepen our understanding of the above principle. Since our founding in 2015, Philly Thrive received advice and direct suggestions from individuals close to USW that the union is not interested at all in conversations with us because of our stance on the refinery hurting public health and the environment. We listened to that advice and mostly ceased attempts to reach out to the unions at PES. There is good reason behind thinking we should have tried to continue reaching out. In other scenarios, we had no choice and were barred from coalitions with labor unions present because of our stance on the refinery. We are committed to carving out time in our organizing towards good faith efforts at relationships with labor unions going forward.
- We are grateful for the positive conversations we have had with refinery workers in the past month. The moments of connection, vulnerability, and honesty have been very hopeful. Thrive members listened to refinery workers talk about the mismanagement they’ve long struggled with at PES, and we’ve wanted to learn more. As we’ve shared about the health impacts experienced in the neighborhood, refinery workers have come up to us to share about health issues they’ve had. We are very open and interested in continued conversations and relationships with rank-and-file workers that could benefit all of us.
- We thank refinery workers for saving the lives of 1.1 million people on June 21st, and for applying your world class skills and training towards a commitment to safety at the refinery. We can only imagine the difficulty of suddenly no longer having the job most familiar to you, the hard questions and feelings involved, and the discomfort of having to relocate for work suddenly, as we are aware many workers have already done. We are open to hearing ways we can support workers materially during this period of time.
- Just as the statement Philly Thrive released after PES’s announced closure says, we support the United Steelworkers Local 10-1 and other unions represented at PES to win concessions from the company in their transition from that job. We are open to hearing ways we can stand in support of those demands. We respect, admire, and are inspired by labor unions as a unit for organizing, protecting, and advancing the interests of working people.
- We have always known the parent companies of PES, its overseas creditors, and executives of PES have been the opposition to our community’s health, wellbeing, and sustainable economic prosperity. For example, the $594 million in cash distributions the Carlyle Group extracted from PES hurt the facility’s operations while whisking away wealth created in Philadelphia. The workers have never been the true opposition to Philadelphian’s Right to Breathe.
- We will not stand for racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression coming from refinery workers or anyone else towards residents attempting to participate in the Mayor’s Refinery Advisory Group process. We are aware of ways the owning class has used racism as a tool for weakening unions and dividing the working class, and we will not allow that. Philly Thrive members have lived through the race riots and brutal, violent racial conflicts in neighborhoods surrounding the refinery, and as a community we refuse to allow that history to resurface in any way. We will also not allow misinformation about the percentage of the refinery workforce who live in surrounding neighborhoods or the positive contributions PES has made to surrounding neighborhoods. Misinformation hurts the process of determining solutions that benefit all Philadelphia residents.
- Philly Thrive members hold true to our commitment to standing for the Right to Breathe for all Philadelphians. We know a refinery is in direct contradiction with the goal of clean air in our city, and therefore we cannot consider any attempts to find common ground amongst our interests that involve keeping the refinery operating. We have been made aware of the complexities of the “Just Transition” framework, and we agree that what has happened with PES has been far from “just” for the workers. However, we have chosen to use the term because we are committed to winning other elements of “Just Transition,” including redistribution of wealth and decision-making in the process of retiring the refinery. We are committed to deepening our understanding of the “Just Transition” framework so that it can continue to be of us for uniting workers and residents in the fight for a livable planet that leaves no one behind.
- Regardless of the opinions of Philly Thrive members, the planet’s changing climate has made it clear the world’s countries require an immediate phase out of fossil fuels towards renewable energy, which includes a transition of the PES refinery. Residents in Philly Thrive are attempting to rise to this collective challenge and offer our expertise & wisdom as people who have firsthand experience of what has not worked about the fossil fuel economy, young people, seniors, and a multiracial, cross-class community. We know the transition to renewable energy will be compromised without labor unions- especially those with the most experience working with fossil fuels- and we ask for your leadership and expertise towards the most daunting task faced by our species. The work to protect a livable planet for future generations is intimately connected with ending the class system that has generated wealth for the 1% on the backs of workers and driven natural systems to collapse.