Rust Belt Resistance

Bush, Perry. Rust Belt Resistance: How a Small Community Took on Big Oil and Won. Kent State University Press, 2012

BushThe small community referred to in the book’s sub-title is Lima, Ohio, which the author describes as “a weathered industrial city of about forty thousand, set against the flat and prosperous farmlands of northwest Ohio.” The antagonist is British Petroleum (BP) “one of the most powerful and wealthy corporations in the world.”

The struggle revolved around a refinery on the edge of town that was for the city a source of identity and an essential factor in its economic base. For BP executives in London, however, the refinery was little more than a pin on a map of the world, despite the fact that it had been transformed by local initiative and become a highly profitable facility. The economics of global capitalism determined that the refinery should be shut down, but the economics of community well being demanded that it continue as a vital element in the city’s industrial life.

The most important actor in this story was David Berger who came to Lima in 1977 while preparing to be a Catholic priest. Before completing his studies, he established his residence in Lima and in 1989 was elected mayor. A second actor was James Schaefer, “commercial manager for British Petroleum’s Midwest operations” who came to the Lima refinery in 1991 when the aging facility was in decline and the workforce demoralized.

A new spirit of innovation emerged within the workforce, based on traditional blue-color pride in one’s work and diligence in pursuing goals. The refinery was transformed and became a model for BP’s installations around the world.  Schaefer was pulled by two loyalties—to the corporation for which he worked and whose decisions he had to obey and the workers whose labors had transformed the plant on which their well-being depended.

The BP executive who most fully embodied the power of global capitalism and possessed the power of decision concerning the Lima refinery was the company’s chief executive, John Browne, whom Bush describes as “an ambitious and sometimes ruthless  workaholic” much like other oil company executives. Unlike other executives, however, he often stressed in his speeches “the kinds of social responsibilities that BP owed the world,” even to the point of participating in the struggle against global warming.

After introducing Browne, Bush summarizes the book’s deeper story. “In the Lima metropolitan region in the mid-1990s, local people presented Browne with a perfect opportunity to put such fine words into practice. The ensuing confrontation between an aging and economically battered industrial city on the one hand and a powerful global corporation on the other would reveal a lot: about the real extend of the corporate social conscience, about the core issue of corporate personhood, and even the extent of real agency left to industrial communities” (10).

The conclusion to the Lima—BP struggle is that the small town won. By its constant and highly skilled resistance, led by the mayor and his associates but empowered by the deeply established values of the people of the community, Lima forced British Petroleum to find a way to preserve the refinery and save the city from impending disaster. As a morality story, the Lima-BP drama concludes with the mayor continuing in office, his work honored by the people whom he had served so skillfully.

In contrast, British Petroleum’s chief executive suffers disgrace. A succession of disasters from 2001 onward caused terrible environmental damage and cost BP hundred’s of millions of dollars in fines. “A growing chorus of critics pinned much of the blame for the oil leaks and explosions on Browne’s ruthless cost-cutting, which had led to neglect of routine maintenance” (245). In addition to these criticisms of his leadership of the company, Browne also faced charges of illegal conduct related to his private life. The “proud and cultured oilman watched his glittering career come to a sudden end in scandal and public disgrace.”

The major narrative of this book includes three sub-plots. The first is indicated by the sub-title of the book: the struggle between communities and larger political entities and vast economic powers. In Bush’s narrative, Cleveland and Ohio were similarly challenged by British Petroleum’s brand of global capitalism. It is important that political entities both great and small understand the nature of the battle.

The second sub-plot describes how global capitalism actually works, with the amoral maximization of profit as the essential purpose of corporations. The third sub-plot, and perhaps the most important, is the metamorphosis of the American democratic system in ways that citizens of every political persuasion should heed.

Perry Bush, who teaches at Bluffton University, sixteen miles from Lima, has written an interesting, perceptive, and prophetic book that deserves a wide reading.

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