Pantry Power

When people think of union activism, they think pickets and rallies, not groceries. But a locked-out worker need to fill her pantry.

In June, Beto O’Rourke and I had the pleasure of visiting with some 650 workers in Beaumont, Texas, who have been locked out of their refinery since May 1 by the oil giant ExxonMobil. Just walking into the United Steelworkers’ hall gives a palpable sense of real “union spirit.” It’s not some “Solidarity Forever” singalong, but something genuinely uplifting. Hundreds of everyday people uniting in a pragmatic, cooperative effort, pulling together to do the organizing work required to gain a measure of control over their own economic destiny and resist the selfish arrogance of powerful bosses.

A union hall is basically a big meeting room, and the Steelworkers have converted theirs into a full-fledged grocery store stocked with items from jars of roux (this is, after all, Cajun country) to packages of Oreos (lockouts are hard on children), fresh and frozen veggies, assorted meats in cold lockers, cleaning supplies and other basics. When most people think of union activism, they think pickets and rallies, not groceries. But “lockout” is short for “no paycheck,” and for workaday families, that means dire shortages as the weeks go by, so union spirit means stepping up with essentials.

USW’s pantry was set up and is overseen by Nikki Hill. Known by all as “Miss Nikki,” she’s a third-generation union refinery worker and a no-nonsense, get-it-done organizer. To convey a bit of normalcy and respect for the folks who need assistance, she has arranged the space like a market rather than an emergency food shelf. Also, it’s run literally as a family operation: She and her husband Everett, also a Local member, are usually there to greet shoppers and keep things flowing, while the younger of their six kids work shifts to stock shelves, bag groceries and assist the hundreds of people who count on the pantry.

The goods here are free, though many people contribute what money and volunteer efforts they can. Miss Nikki and crew are also supershoppers for the cause, clipping coupons, searching for sales, arranging food donations, negotiating with store managers for wholesale prices and generally producing a lot with a little.

Which raises another fact that establishment forces don’t want us thinking about: The very idea of having and joining unions is popular and widely considered essential to help counter the corporate greed ravaging America. Moreover, as is happening in the Golden Triangle, local people will actively support local labor struggles. Small businesses in particular are more often than not willing to help out underdogs in a fight, which they’ve done with USW’s pantry. Why? Because (1) these businesses are small, too, often getting run over by big conglomerates, out-of-state banks and chains; (2) they personally know — and might even be kin to — Miss Nikki, “Hoot,” “Pup” and other union leaders and members (note: nicknames are popular in the Triangle); and (3) those 650 union families are a core part of their customer base — while Darren Woods definitely is not.

Who is Darren Woods? CEO of ExxonMobil, the third-biggest private oil corporation in the world, Woods reigns over Exxon’s global empire from a luxurious corporate compound hundreds of miles from Beaumont. He has practically no personal contact with locals — and even less in common with them. For example, while Beaumont families are hooked to the fuse of that huge, ticking refinery, Darren and his family need never give a thought to his own executive suite exploding in a chemical fireball. Thus, the faraway chief of this $181 billion-a-year behemoth has no qualms decreeing that state-of-the-art safety devices and procedures are too costly an investment.

Then there’s job performance. Since Woods took over as CEO in 2017, ExxonMobil’s income, profits and stock prices have tumbled. Yet, under today’s corporate ethic of institutionalized inequality, the captain (unlike the crew) no longer goes down with the ship. To the contrary, Woods has prospered extravagantly:

  • 2017: Even though Exxon’s stock price fell by 14%, Woods reaped hikes of 20% in salary and 50% in bonuses to take home $17.5 million in total pay.
  • 2018: He got another nice bounce, banking $18.8 million.
  • 2019: This was a bonanza year for the chief, whose personal pay was jacked up to $23.5 million.
  • 2020: Even when Exxon’s revenue plummeted by 30%, Woods grabbed a $16 million payday.

Here’s one guy siphoning more than $75 million in personal pay for just four years in the executive chair.

Now in 2021, under shareholder pressure to goose up Exxon’s bottom line, the multimillionaire CEO has a plan: Take the money and health care from the needs of rank-and-file workers. To help the locked-out workers and fill the pantry, go to Action Network.

Jim Hightower