The Woman of Steel: An interview with Jana Pellush
By Erica Montana Thames
Jana Pellush is a tiny woman with a huge drive. Walking into the hall of USW Local 13-1, I didn’t even notice her sitting right in front of me among a crowd of union members who towered over her. Barely five feet tall, with a gentle voice, she is not the type of person you would expect to be a die-hard union activist. But after being around her for a few minutes, I could tell that Jana was powerful and well respected.
Jana, a native Texan, has been working in refineries and a member of the union since 1974. Herself the daughter of an oil roughneck, Jana found her way to the job because of the encouragement of her roommate at the time, a woman who was a welder at the Shell Refinery in Deer Park. After a brief stint as a librarian in 2004, she returned to the job and her brothers and sisters in the union. She sat down with me to talk about the current strike (still ongoing at some Houston locations).
Why is this strike a public issue?
There are a range of what might be called “personal” issues that are definitely matters of “public” concern. For example, domestic violence, bullying in schools, how Gay/lesbian/transgender/bisexual people are treated, child abuse, how we treat our pets…Over the years we have come to see that society as a whole has an interest in intervening in situations where maltreatment may be occurring, and even making laws aimed at promoting fairness. The same applies to economic and safety issues that are brought up in strike situations: these are matters of public concern, especially in the oil and chemical industry, where leaks and explosions affect the community.
No individual lives their life in a vacuum and if you think about your parents, your family, your immediate circle of friends and your schooling — all the different schools you go to, all the different teachers you have — you’re affected by that. And there have been movements in the past that have fought for a better life. The unions also fought against child labor, and in many parts of the world that is still an issue. Who is going to stand up for the children of the world? It’s the labor movement. Who’s going to take up for the workers that get pennies of pay a day? It’s the labor movement. I’m seeing more labor involved in the environmental movement; I am happy about that.
What made you interested in union activism?
People lost their lives for these rights. I’m sure there are people that can’t get this concept in their head. They think that their life is entirely individual, they think of their life in terms of a career, moving up in the world, getting a job with the company, getting promoted and getting raises. I’ve never seen my life in those terms. I’ve always been interested in politics and in social movements. The first movement that I was really conscious of was the movement for civil rights and of course I agreed with that. Then I saw the women’s movement and I saw how it related to my life, and then there were all these movements going on with gay rights. I was a supporter for the gay rights movement and was active in trying to get literature out on campus about why the gay rights movement was important. The [anti-]Vietnam war [movement], I was active in that. My worldview has been that there are issues that affect us, so the concept [of] moving through life with your own family and your own career and [that’s] your extent of participation of a broader society - that is how a lot of people see their life but that has not been how I see my life or how my close friends see their lives. And of course you’re interested in [issues] by the people you associate with, so there is something about how I grew up and saw the world which led me to these broader movements to become part of that. I can remember being in school and reading all about Jimmy Hoffa [disappearing]. Around that time, there were all these news reports about the Teamsters and I didn’t know what the Teamsters were or what they were all about but I began to learn what a union is and what a union can do and why you need to support the union movement.
What about your ideals drives you to union activism?
I’ve done some reading about the labor movement, not at all as much as I would like to. But I know that the unions were organized by radicals. They weren’t middle of the road, “well maybe this or maybe that” people. They were radicals, they were socialists, they were communists. They were regular rank and file and saw what was going on and drew conclusions, and they knew that they needed to fight for an organization that would represent many. Not just be out for yourself, but the very concept of unionism is that you unite and fight for common interests of the many. The corporations have always fought tooth and nail for their interests, so to counterbalance that you at least need unions. Our first line of defense is a union, a well organized union, and it may be true that it takes something this crucial, this shocking, to make ourselves and others understand how important that is. Because I know that my life and everyone’s lives have been disrupted by the strike. Everyone involved in this has had their life disrupted. My routine has been disrupted and really your life has been turned upside down, so what do you do in that situation? You really see what your core values are. I know what my core values are, I know that I worked with my brothers and sisters in the union for our common interests and I don’t desert that cause.
Can you tell me about the strike in 1980?
I don’t recall what the national oil bargaining package contained at the outset of the strike in 1980, but I clearly remember that we got a dental plan for the first time and additional weeks of vacation for the high seniority workers. Remember, these were achievements that, after we ratified, covered ALL organized oil workers, and there were many more of us at that time (60,000).
The 1980 strike began in early January and lasted 3 months. The contract expired on January 1 in those days. Apparently there were 6 days of extensions, because negotiations continued, as my journal at that time recorded on January 7: “Waiting for news of possible strike. Pretty good coverage on the local news. Due to fire at the fluid (catalytic cracking) unit, had to work [overtime] twice over the past week.”
On January 13 I wrote: “This is the 6th day of the 1980 oil strike!” I referred to writing an article on the strike for the Militant newspaper. I continued to write updates for the Militant throughout the strike. I was also active in the anti-nuclear movement; the local organization was Mockingbird Alliance. “I am getting things pretty well organized on Mockingbird’s Outreach committee,” and “went to check out a possible new office site for M.A.” There was no lack of activities to keep me busy. My birthday was in February and I turned 30 during that strike (and 65 during this one). As a young woman, my priorities were different at that time. I wrote “Ideally, I’d like to spend four hours a day playing my bass, do some picketing and hanging around the hall a couple hours, drink some beer at the G and L and…” I am omitting the conclusion of that, but essentially it had to do with the opposite sex. Everyone from those days will remember the G and L ice house on Hwy 225, across from the plant.
On February 13, I wrote, “Had a successful Mockingbird table at UH today. Two men were killed at the Amoco, Texas City, refinery today - they were contractors. Got another $15 this week, strike benefits. Plan to apply for food stamps soon. Early picket line tomorrow.”
How did the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization’s strike in 1981 affect you?
The PATCO strike was a big deal. I remember going to a big support rally for them in Houston with some coworkers who are now in SOAR (Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees), Earl Ehlers and Tom Gentry, and others. Today, Ronald Reagan appeals to a lot of working people who just don’t realize the role he played in intimidating working class people and our organizations. The full force of the U.S. government was set up against that union. It set into motion a dive downward for the labor movement. All the figures are out there showing the shrinking of the middle class. That so called middle class is just working people who have been boosted into a higher level of prosperity by the gains of the labor movement. All these campaigns around the country to raise the minimum wage are a response to the beating down of wages since the PATCO defeat. I think there is momentum in the country now to fight back. Our strike was part of that. I am looking forward to playing an active role in that movement. Last Thanksgiving I went to a support rally at a Houston WalMart store for the $15/hour minimum wage. The next important step for the labor movement is to get those WalMart and other low paid retail workers organized. In the oil industry, we have to organize the contract labor force. Every worker should be organized into a union that works for those workers’ interests. That’s my goal.
How was union activism different when you first started your career?
Strikes were more common in the 60s and 70s but not so much since the PATCO strike in the late 80s. We haven’t seen as many strikes; we haven’t seen as much labor militancy. Back in those days, it’s not that there were a lot of strikes but we had two year contracts. Every two years you knew that there was a possibility of a strike, it was just something that you understood. When I moved down to Houston in ’72, I believe it was that year that there was an extensive strike over at the Shell plant that I work at now, I believe over safety issues. It was just a lot of comment in the news media about that strike. In 1989 when I worked at the Arco plant, we went on strike for three months. That brought home to me that if you work under a union contract and you have issues that are not being addressed by your company, you really need to be prepared to go out, to exercise the power that we in the labor movement have. Our main power is to withhold our labor, so you need to be prepared to do that.
Why is this an environmental issue?
I think the conventional understanding of this involves the location of polluting plants in low income, often minority neighborhoods. Let’s say in most cases the plants were there first, which drives down the desirability of the real estate and makes it more affordable. And if the plants want to expand, or if new ones come in, they can easily do so as there are not politically powerful voices against this. My concept of environmental justice today is a lot bigger. It means that, for the good of the entire planet, dirty, carcinogenic pollutants must be done away with. That means fossil fuels: oil, gas and coal. The best science we have shows that carbon emissions have to be cut drastically and SOON. It’s my belief that the young generation now at these refineries must be the last. I hope and pray these young people will inherit the job of final shutdowns of all the cokers, fluid catalytic cracking units, sulfur units and so on when they are in their fifties. The scientists give us till 2050 to get these carbon emissions down, way down. Let’s go for it.
by Guest Author