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The History of Industrial Unionism in Southeast Texas

Behind every thing, there is a story to be told. There is history behind every event, object or occurrence. This holds true for the industrial unionism, and Marcus Robbins wrote about this particular history in his article entitled “Our Unalienable Right:” A Brief History of Locals 229 and 243 Oil Workers International Union, Magnolia Refinery, 1937-1945. In this article, Robbins explored the trials and successes of the labor unions in the Magnolia Petroleum Company throughout the given years.

The main objective of the article was to dispute the claim that the success of industrial unionism in Southeast Texas as shown by Locals 229 and 243 had occurred during the latter part of the 1930s instead of Second World War (Robbins, 1993). To assert this claim, the author narrated the history of oil workers in the Magnolia Refinery. The history he presented was filled with both triumphs and failures. According to Robbins, union representation in the Magnolia oil refinery became necessary because of the inappropriate treatment of workers, poor working conditions and low salaries (Robbins, 1993).

However, organizing unions became as difficult as the work itself due to the threats that came with such activities. Despite the difficulties, Locals 229 (for the African American workers) and 243 (for the white workers) pushed through with their efforts. In April 1937, the Oil Workers International Union (OWIU) hoped to unionize the Gulf Coast refineries and sent their representatives to invite the workers to join Locals 229 and 243 (Robbins, 1993). The initial effort of the OWIU had its setbacks.

This included the lack of recruited members for the said locals, the lay offs which occurred because of the Great Depression and the obstructions presented by the company union (Robbins, 1993). The existence of company union was stipulated by the National Industrial Recovery Act, but the National Labor Relations Act under allowed workers to bargain through their chosen unions. Nonetheless, the bitter battle between company union and Locals 229 and 243 continued. It was not until the occurrence of the Second World War that the locals had their first opportunity for success (Robbins, 1993).

The war effort resulted in increased activity in the refinery because of the demand for petroleum products (Robbins, 1993). The situation forced the company to increase working hours and imposed unlimited overtime. Such move prompted Locals 229 and 243 to reorganize again. This time they succeeded; Locals 229 and 243 became the only bargaining representatives for the Magnolia Refinery workers, and had signed a contract agreement with the company (Robbins, 1993). The oil industry had accumulated great profit from the government’s war expenditure (Robbins, 1993).

Meanwhile, the workers suffered from the high cost of living because of the inflation. After the war, Locals 229 and 243 demanded higher wages and shorter working hours. The OWIU officially launched a strike on September 16, 1945. The strike itself was calmly conducted, but the parties involved had not reached an agreement. The Truman administration had to intervene to finally end the strike, as it greatly affected the production needed for the demands of the war effort.

The workers had to give in to the company’s offer of an 18% increase and a 40-hour work week (Robbins, 1993). In my opinion, one’s history would not be complete without failures. Before a group of people can succeed in their endeavor, they must endure hardship first. Struggle is required in any challenge, and it makes victory sweeter. For me, the success of unions in the Magnolia Refinery shows how determination eventually results in a triumphant end.

Though the history of the Magnolia Refinery unions did not end in a high note, Marcus Robbins was successful in illustrating that industrial unionism indeed flourished during the Second World War. The war itself was instrumental in making Locals 229 and 243 into the only agents of union bargaining in the refinery. Hence, Robbins successfully proved his assertion in his article. Reference Robbins, M. (1993). “Our unalienable right:” a brief history of locals 229 and 243 oil workers international union, magnolia refinery, 1937-1945. Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, 29 (1), 55-68.

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