In the 1954 race for Texas governor, the corporate powers were panicking. It looked like the incumbent – right-wing millionaire Allan Shivers – might be upset by his union-endorsed rival, progressive firebrand Ralph Yarborough. To portray the sheer awfulness of that possibility, the moneyed interests had bought TV airtime for “The Port Arthur Story,” a political ad that played like a docudrama, with voice-of-doom narration. Thus, television sets across the state were soon afire with an alarming piece of raw fearmongering linking Yarborough to a “communist dominated plot” by “eastern and northern” labor bosses to “invade (and) ... take over Texas industry.”
Along with Beaumont and Orange, Port Arthur is one of three small industrial cities touted as “The Golden Triangle,” referring to the “black gold” of toxic crude oil refined here by the multiple sprawling and spewing factories. At the time, the Triangle was also a stronghold of union organizing and progressive activism. And that’s the horror the TV ad played on.
“A year ago, (Port Arthur) was a thriving city,” the narrator solemnly intones.
“Today it is deserted. Children don’t play anymore. Women don’t shop. ... Nobody smiles,” he declares as the camera pans across closed shops on eerily empty streets.
“Nobody knew it was coming, but it did ... They give no warning. You don’t realize the importance of it all until it happens. Then it’s too late.” The ominous “it,” he reveals, is a “foreign invasion of grasping control,” including union-organized African Americans, led by “out-of-state CIO labor leaders (who) poured into Port Arthur ... to personally supervise the death of a city.” And Ralph Yarborough, the ad explains, is “right in bed with them.”
You might find it hard to imagine that any strong, self-respecting Texan would be hornswoggled by this obvious Chicken-Little nonsense. But as we’re witnessing today, such incendiary political fabrications can spread like wildfire and burn truth to the ground. That’s what happened in 1954 Texas when the state’s Shivers-supporting newspaper establishment eagerly picked up the ad’s story, ran with it as factual and stoked statewide fearmongering.
Only after the election, which Yarborough lost by six points, was the real reason for those deserted streets revealed: The ad was filmed at 6 a.m. on a Sunday.
I had heard the Port Arthur story years ago, and this summer it suddenly came back to me as I was making the long drive from my Austin home right into the heart of the Triangle.
I was headed to a labor event, and parallels between that old fearmongering corporate political ploy and the focus of my trip sprang to mind. Beto O’Rourke and I were on the way to Beaumont to rally with members of the United Steel Workers (USW) at their union hall and then proceed to the front gate of ExxonMobil’s massive oil refinery (North America’s largest) in a show of support for a USW picket line.
This was no ordinary picket. Call it “The Beaumont Story,” for just like 1954’s moneyed interests, today’s Exxon executives have ambushed Golden Triangle unions. In a little-reported maneuver, they launched a crude attack this spring on the Steelworkers, attempting to bust the union, disempower the middle-class workforce and entrench corporate autocracy in the oil industry. What’s occurring in Beaumont is not a union strike, but a corporate lockout – and it’s still going on five months later.
Exxon’s contract with the union was set to expire in May, but the company rejected USW’s attempts to negotiate a new agreement with cold recalcitrance. Union members were not even proposing increased pay or benefits but were primarily seeking greater plant safety for workers. Turning oil into gasoline, kerosene and other combustibles is an innately explosive process, and U.S. refineries have notoriously shortchanged protections.
Yet, aloof Exxon executives, sitting out of harm’s way in faraway corporate headquarters, continued to stonewall, adamantly demanding that USW accept concessions that would undermine safety. When the union proposed a one-year extension of the old contract so that negotiations could continue, Exxon slammed the plant’s gate shut, locking out more than 650 refinery workers. Making the slap in the face even more stinging, the gate-slamming took place on May 1, International Workers’ Day!
This $179 billion oil giant has cut off the paychecks and healthcare benefits of its Beaumont workers, but we can show the company that it can’t cut our support for fairness or ignore the basic need for workplace safety. The Texas AFL-CIO has set up a donation page for the locked-out workers and their families, who’re making a stand for all Americans being knocked down by corporate greed. All donations go directly to buy food, water and necessary supplies for them. To help, go to actionnetwork.org/fundraising/ donate-locked-out-tx-usw/.
To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.