More than 50 protesters gathered on the grassy lot near Washington Elementary School Monday to decry the oil refining industry. After about an hour of shouting environmental and labor concerns into a megaphone, they marched with picket signs to the gates of Chevron a few blocks away.
Steve Zeltzer, of United Workers for Action, emceed the event. He said the Labor Day protest was about stopping further contamination and explosions from oil refineries around the world, helping laborers with health and safety issues, and prosecuting Chevron executives and managers for criminal negligence.
“When nobody goes to jail for violating environmental laws, they think it’s OK, no problem,” Zeltzer said. “It’s only when they’re put in jail that sends a message to other people: ‘You don’t do this.’”
Charles Rachlis, an industrial hygienist for the state government, called for nationalizing the industry.
“I don’t think resources that are provided by the planet should be in the hands of a few great shareholders,” he said. “I think the wealth of planet should be shared amongst the people of the planet and therefore these extraction industries have to be taken away from the shareholders and put into the hands of all. That’s the only way to share these resources in an equitable way.”
Zeltzer asked why a company that made $29.6 billion in profit in 2011 couldn’t properly maintain a refinery and why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hadn’t inspected the Richmond refinery this year. “Where are the politicians in California?” he asked. “You’d think when there was a major fire like this they’d be out asking questions. Complete silence.”
One of the loudest cheers of the morning came when Zeltzer demanded that Chevron pay for a new public hospital. He said 30 percent of children in Richmond have asthma, and that there are epidemics of lung and breast cancer near refineries.
The protest’s keynote speaker was Peace and Freedom Party vice presidential candidate Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan gained national attention in 2005 for protesting the Iraq War outside President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch. Her son was a U.S. Army Specialist killed during the war.
Sheehan, a Vacaville resident, encouraged the Richmond protesters to boycott Chevron and as much as possible not to participate in the fossil fuel economy. She went on to say Labor Day should be called Exploitation of Workers Day and that Washington D.C. and Sacramento don’t have the same interests as everyone else.
“Oil companies use our government to keep them safe around the world,” she said. “Chevron is a war criminal.”