We’re Sticking by Our Union: The Battle for Baytown

By Michael Botson

Between June 1942, and November 1943, Baytown, Texas, became the backdrop to one of the most dramatic labor confrontations to rock the upper Texas Gulf Coast during World War II. In this prolonged conflict, workers at Humble Oil’s Baytown refinery battled one another over what union they wanted representing them. Nine years earlier such worker militancy was unheard of, but that all changed in 1933 when New Deal labor legislation and reforms energized the Texas labor movement fueling worker activism. Since 1933, refinery workers at Humble Oil had been battling management and warring among themselves over the kind of union they wanted representing them. It marked a new era in Texas labor relations. By 1942, Humble Oil & Refining Company grudgingly accepted the fact that it must deal with organized employees who demanded a voice over working conditions and pay. But employees split over the issue of representation pitting those loyal to the Baytown Employees Federation against their colleagues in the Oil Workers International Union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

CIO supporters regarded their union as a strong advocate willing to challenge what they saw as the feudalistic labor relations of Humble Oil. Federation men rejected the CIO as an outside organization bent on trouble. They viewed the Federation as their organization best able to represent them based on its tradition of cooperative labor relations with management dating back to 1920. Additionally, the federal government loomed large over the conflict for two reasons. First, the Wagner Act established guidelines for peacefully settling disputes between competing unions and prosecuting unfair labor practices by employers. Secondly, Humble Oil’s Baytown refinery produced 100 octane gasoline, a wartime essential needed to defeat the Axis powers. America could not afford to allow a labor dispute at Humble Oil to disrupt the flow of fuel that kept its planes and tanks running. Ultimately though, two over arching and overlapping issues decided the outcome of the struggle: Humble Oil’s labor relations policy patterned after the Standard Oil Corporation and race.

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