‘In the Oil Fields’ from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 14 No. 11. May, 1914.

A report on the industrial horrors of Oklahoma’s oil boom, the use of ‘white’ versus Italian labor, and the work of the I.W.W. to organize the fields.

‘In the Oil Fields’ from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 14 No. 11. May, 1914.

(THE REVIEW is indebted to Oran Burk, a socialist at Sapulpa, Okla., for the photographs herein produced and to Comrade Burk and to George Fenton, Financial Secretary of the I.W.W. at Tulsa, Okla., for data on the southern oil wells and the condition of the workers in the oil fields.)

NEARLY everybody who is unacquainted with the conditions under which the workers in the oil fields labor is accustomed to imagine that the oil workers’ “lot is such a happy one.” We have heard the old story-that “the Standard Oil Company never had a strike” so often that we supposed the Standard’s men and oil men generally were so well paid and so kindly treated that they were perfectly content in the sphere in which the Oil Gods had been pleased to place them. We are very glad to hear that there is a healthy discontent spreading all through the oil industry and that in the Tulsa oil fields alone the I.W.W. has done pioneer work, having over 300 members who will bear the message of industrial solidarity to the far corners of the globe when their work has been finished in Oklahoma.

Oil workers are still industrial pioneers. The “rigs” upon which they are employed are always situated in the “jungle,” miles from any city, and the pleasures and comforts and amusements of civilization.

The wells are found at greatly varying depths. In the Southern districts, particularly in Oklahoma, the wells are usually from 1,400 to 2,000 feet-deep. The drills used here weigh about two tons. The first four or five hundred feet are drilled twelve inches in width and cased. Another hole is then drilled inside this casing about eight inches across, and cased with eight-inch casing. Then the last, a six-inch hole is drilled and cased with six-inch casing.

Usually gas is found in the oil wells and is capped In when the different casings are put in. When oil is struck, the well is shot with nitroglycerine to make a basin to hold the oil. Then pumps are connected with a power plant by a rod call or shackle line and the well is pumped as long as the oil flow continues.

The steam boilers for drilling are heated by gas fire, the gas being pumped from some other well until gas is struck in the well being drilled itself. Then the gas is piped to the furnace and the oil well is drilled by its OWN GAS.

There is constant danger of an explosion when gas is struck and the boiler must be many feet away from the drill. Many oil crews have been killed by these explosions. A lighted match has been known to cause the annihilation of a whole drilling crew.

The oil is sometimes so filled with gas that the gas will shoot the oil over the top of a 75-foot tower.

Comrade Burk writes that he heard of a case where a large crowd of people had gathered to see a new oil well shot, as they usually do. The drilling crew intended to use 200 quarts of glycerine. Three cartridges had been lowered into the well and the fourth was being lowered, when the well began to spout.

The man who plants the shots caught each charge as it came up and handed it to the stabber, who turned it over to the tool dresser, who leaned them up against the tower and thus prevented an explosion that would have wiped out fifty people.

On a good oil lease one oil well will often pay all expense in one week.

One power house, furnished with a gas engine, fed from one of the wells, will pump from one to twenty wells by rods running to each well, some of them running a mile from the power. One man tends the engine and a crew of four or five make all the repairs on several leases.

The oil is pumped into large tanks and kept till sold, when it is pumped into pipe lines leading into larger lines. One such line runs from Cushing to the Gulf of Mexico. Some pipe lines run to the refineries.

Everything possible is done by machinery.

In Oklahoma the owners of the land lease to the oil companies, for which they receive one-eighth as a royalty on all oil pumped. A few farmers have grown rich this way. A great deal of Oklahoma land was purchased from the Indians before oil was discovered on it. This has greatly increased the holdings of other Indians in Oklahoma.

Fellow Worker George Fenton writes: “The recognized standard of wage in this district is seven dollars a day for oil drillers for twelve hours of work and six dollars a day for tool dressers for a twelve-hour day. Twelve hours of labor in the oil industry is called ‘a tower.’ The drillers and tool dressers have to continually hustle to show their employers that they can do more work and expend more energy than the ‘scissor-bills,’ who are always anxious to show the boss they are better slaves than the next fellow.

“The shacks put up for the oil workers are as poor as can be and the grub supplied is scarcely enough to give the men the required strength to keep on working.”

Fenton declares that the skilled workers on the oil drilling jobs are the most conservative and enslaved of the lot, owing to their fancied superiority over common laborers. In Tulsa, Okla., he says, a city of only 35,000, there are over 15,000 unemployed men who have been lured to the South by “boomer” advertisements.

The oil gaugers, being in a position to report on the different producing qualities of the oil wells, have worked their way into the graces of the Oil Gods and can usually be counted upon to report the first signs of discontent and rebellion among the less highly paid men. And the oil companies know how to take care of their stool pigeons and spies. Men who may be counted upon to report or help to quell any plans for bettering the conditions of the oil workers may always be sure of a job with the master class.

The “pipe-liners” play a most important part in the oil fields. Their work is most hazardous. They make possible the marketing of the oil. Their sufferings and hardships are almost unbelievable. Their work takes them into the fastnesses of the mountains, the wind-driven plains, into far distant, sunbaked deserts and through the swamps of tropical countries. To them “home” is the place where they are building the oil pipe line, and usually means a leaky tent a thousand miles from the comforts of a city.

The agents for the large corporations are always on the alert to secure the labor of “foreigners,” who, being new to the environment, may be counted upon to work for lower wages. In the South some ambitious scissor-bill is appointed as “herder” of the innocents, who, in order to make himself pat with the boss, will nearly drive the poor laborers to desperation.

Owing to the lying newspaper advertisements, there is a continual influx of labor toward the oil centers. This keeps competition keen among the workers and forces wages down to the barest possible point.

Recently a large body of workers employed by the Gulf Pipe Line Company, superintended by a deposed politician and several cast-off “bar flies,” completed a very hazardous piece of pipe laying. This job was twelve miles from a railroad. They were hauled out TO the job, all right, were paid off in time slips, and turned off to shift for themselves. There was nothing to do but to trek the distance to the railroad station in the uncertainty that anybody would cash their checks.

A large pipe line contracting firm of Pittsburg, Pa., Boot & Flynn, contracted a piece of work in Vivien and Oil City, La. The white pipeliners proved to be too expensive, although they were experienced in the work, because they demanded decent wages and decent living conditions. The company agents were immediately instructed to employ an army of Italians, who were sequestered in and around Pittsburg. The Italians were shipped to Louisiana and set to putting in pipe lines. The American workers had received $3 a day. The Italians were to get $1.75 and board and house themselves.

The petit bourgeois in the vicinity, realizing that the Italians would resort to the “jungle,” kicked against their employment and demanded that white men be employed instead. This sentiment proving overwhelming, the company was compelled to meet the demands. The Italians were driven out of town by their self-same employers. Thus do the employers “sting” the workers every day in the year.

Wages and conditions were not nearly so bad before the contract system came into vogue for laying the pipe lines. But the contractors have made life unbearable for the working men. In the South the oil workers are fast realizing that they can do nothing unless they are thoroughly organized and that WHEN thoroughly organized, the great thing to be accomplished is to abolish the wages system. Just now their minds are set on growing strong enough to establish an eight-hour day.

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v14n11-may-1914-ISR-riaz-GR-ocr.pdf

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