Refinery Town : big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city

by Steve Early

Hardcover, 2017



Home to one of the largest oil refineries in the state, Richmond, California, was once a typical company town, dominated by Chevron. This largely nonwhite, working-class city of one hundred thousand suffered from poverty, pollution, and poorly funded public services. It had one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the country and a jobless rate twice the national average. But in 2012, when veteran labor reporter Steve Early moved from New England to Richmond, he discovered a city struggling to remake itself. In Refinery Town, Early chronicles the fifteen years of successful community organizing that raised the local minimum wage, defeated a casino development project, challenged home foreclosures and evictions, and sought fair taxation of Big Oil. Here we meet a dynamic cast of characters, from ninety-four-year-old Betty Reid Soskin, the country's oldest full-time national park ranger and witness to Richmond's complex history; to Gayle McLaughlin, the Green mayor who challenged Chevron and won; to police chief Chris Magnus, who brought community policing to Richmond and is now one of America's leading public safety reformers. Part urban history, part call to action, Refinery Town shows how concerned citizens can harness the power of local politics to reclaim their community and make municipal government a source of much-needed policy innovation.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member etheredge
The title "Refinery Town" caught my attention right away. The early years of my career were spent in Port Arthur, Texas, a quintessential refinery town. However, decades later things have changed, and not all for the better. This book is about how a group of ordinary citizens rose up and fought "big oil and big money" to advance a progressive agenda in the city of Richmond, California. In fact, though, it is about much more than that. Studying Richmond is somewhat like studying a microcosm of our entire country. And understanding what went on in Richmond may, just possibly, help progressives accomplish things at the local level that, it has become clear, they have no chance of doing at the national level any time soon.

Chevron's huge oil refinery in Richmond was started in 1903, when the company was known (or was soon to be known) as Standard Oil of California. The author devotes a bit of the book to the town's history, one important factor being the massive changes brought about by World War II when Kaiser's big shipyards increased the number and changed the demographic of the population. Then he gets into the details of the story about the time of the "Great Recession." The refinery has just suffered a major fire which almost cost the lives of nineteen workers. The community's concern about safety inside the plant subsequently leads to concerns about other factors such as delivery of crude oil by train, environmental problems, income inequity and lack of training due to use of contractors instead of company employees, and Chevron's stance on climate change to cite a few examples. Needless to say, Chevron is not anxious to address these issues with the town.

Eventually, organizations are formed and others enlisted to fight many other battles. Home foreclosures, affordable housing, health care, crime and drugs, police relations with the community, cronyism and corruption in City Hall - in short, the problems that face the entire nation. Every step of the way, they were opposed by special interests. In every political campaign, they were outspent by orders of magnitude. The effect of the Supreme Court's misguided decision in Citizens United was almost overwhelming. Of course they did not win every battle but eventually progress was made.

The author warns early on that "out-of-towners may feel they've acquired more local knowledge than they want or need." I admit that I was feeling that way initially, but then I realized that it was only by getting into the nitty-gritty that the author could convey the tremendous effort required to get anything done. Just one example: a couple of members of the City Council deliberately created chaos in public meetings, then ran for reelection on the basis that the Council was dysfunctional. Yes, it takes time to read the details, but in the end it was rewarding. I hope that others facing the same problems will see that they are not alone. This is what it will take if progress is to be made.
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LibraryThing member benruth
This si a placeholder review in that I really mean to read this book, but it wasn't one that I could instantly get into. I thought it would be more of the history of a town, and it seems to be a history of activism in a town, which I think will also ultimately be interesting, but it didn't grab me quite the way I expected when I requested it. I plan to come back and update this review at such point as I actually delve in and read the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Illiniguy71
Richmond, California is a blue-collar, industrial town of about 110,000 people on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay north of Oakland and Berkeley. Non-whites make up a majority of its population. In World War II, Henry J. Kaiser built his Liberty and Victory ships there—hundreds of them. Today a huge Chevron refinery is the biggest employer in this town with a high rate of unemployment. Thus, Chevron, with very deep pockets, has a great deal of political clout in the city. Until a few years ago, “[c]ronyism, corruption, corporate domination, and economic decline” characterized the city. Most of this book follows the activities of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and other progressives and radicals in bringing to the city a municipal government that is operated to meet the needs of ordinary residents instead of the needs of Chevron, the realtors, favored unions or other special interests. In 2014, despite more than three million dollars spent by Chevron, the RPA won an especially important city election.
The author is a labor historian who tries to be objective but not impartial. His book certainly has its strengths. It provides an inspiring example of how the people fought and won against a huge corporation and other special interests. At the same time, it demonstrates the practical difficulties of building and sustaining a progressive coalition of white liberals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, gays, environmentalists, peace activists, labor, and others. Richmond provides an example of what can be done at the municipal level but also of municipal efforts that can be thwarted by even a state government controlled by the Democratic Party. The book is fact-filled, so much so that readers with no previous knowledge of northern California or Richmond politics may at points find the reading tedious. But in the end, the reader is amply rewarded.
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LibraryThing member mitchellray
Anyone contemplating freeing local government from the control of big business would do well to read this book. The author, Steve Early, does not provide a how-to manual. Rather, he chronicles the fight in Richmond, California, against Chevron’s dominant influence over the city’s government. The reader is introduced to the realities of trying to wrest government control from big business. Early does not paint a pretty picture. There is subterfuge, corruption, greed, infighting, and much else that is unsavory. There is also integrity, courage, persistence, sacrifice, and much that is inspiring. Reading this book provides a sense of the real challenges facing those who would restore democratic government. It is an exhausting and never-ending endeavor. Those on the side of democracy must be ever vigilant and active. Being on the sidelines is to surrender to special interests that would use government for personal gain to the detriment of collective wellbeing. This is a book for those concerned about local community and the future of democratic government.… (more)
LibraryThing member btuckertx
Refinery Town describes the efforts of the Richmond (CA) Progressive Alliance to turn Richmond into a more livable city. I have to admit, it was a real struggle to finish it. I'm sure anyone deeply interested in Progressive vs. Status Quo politics will enjoy the book. It's well written and topical, but not my cup of tea.
LibraryThing member arelenriel
If you want to know how to combat the plutocracy this book is it. It tells the story of a city that decided they were going to take their government back from big oil. In today's world of corporate ownership and involvement in our government understanding how they did this has become increasingly important. Early argues for civic engagement and creating a setting of government by the people for the people. While some of this was dry reading overall it was an interesting read.… (more)
LibraryThing member wdwilson3
Refinery Town is a detailed look at local politics in Richmond, California, home of a massive Chevron refinery that gives the volume its title. Most of the book focuses on the 21st century and the efforts by progressives to make Richmond less of a company town and more of a livable, equitable home for its largely blue-collar residents. It is not an impartial work. It is written by a veteran trade unionist and progressive, but he attempts to be factual in its presentation of the political struggles within the community.

In a way, Richmond, a city of a little more than 100,000, exhibits many of the same political issues as the United States as a whole. The unlimited financial resources of Chevron weigh heavily in the policy of the city. Channeled and disguised through various “public interest” groups, Chevron's expenditures in local elections overwhelmed the opposition. Only when safety and health issues motivated a core group of grass-roots activists was power wrested away from corporate sympathizers. Richmond citizens suffered problems with housing, crime, health and unemployment. The book chronicles the efforts of the city administration (mayor, city manager, council, and police) to ameliorate those problems. To say that they were successful would be overstating the case. Their efforts, however, are an object lesson to those in other cities who are beset by the same issues.

Admittedly, this is not a book for someone who is only vaguely interested in city politics. Steve Early gives extreme detail about the internal workings of the progressive alliance that may not be of interest to all. On the other hand, a local activist may find in this volume an enhanced understanding of the dynamics of local politics.
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Boston : Beacon Press, [2017]


Physical description

x, 222 p.


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