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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Mid-Continent Refinery and Tulsa skyline, circa 1930
(22027.4, Billie Ruth Gear Collection, OHS).


Initiated on December 22, 1938, the strike at Mid-Continent Refinery was one of Oklahoma's most lengthy and violent. It produced controversy and divided the Tulsa community. This coincided with internal disputes within the Oil Workers' International Union (OWIU), squabbling within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), feuding between the CIO and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), nationwide attacks on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a Supreme Court ruling on wiretapping, and the beginning of a European war, which had an impact on the recently slumping oil market. In concert, these processes gave the strike a life of its own.

The strike's roots reached back to 1937 when the International Association of Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America threatened to strike against the Mid-Continent Petroleum Company in Seminole, Wewoka, and Drumright, Oklahoma. The union action stemmed from the company's refusal to bargain. On March 5 Mid-Continent agreed to negotiate, with Jack Hays representing the union. The main points became wages, hours, and seniority rights. On March 16, after eight days of negotiating, the union claimed victory and announced an agreement. The company then revealed a recurring theme in its negotiations by refusing any third-party arbitration. A growing list of grievances, including seniority, vacation, a union check-off system, and the company's failure to negotiate with the union convinced the OWIU to call the strike. On December 8, 1938, the company refused to submit the potential strikers' grievances to the Oklahoma Board of Arbitration and Conciliation. Although in mid-December Mid-Continent vice president J. C. Denton agreed to discuss the issues with the union after the holidays, allowing Labor Commissioner W. A. Pat Murphy to participate, the union considered this a delaying tactic and initiated the strike on December 22, 1938.

This came a month after the oil union had joined other unions in establishing the CIO and had changed its name to the Oil Workers' International Union. They engaged in a sit-down strike at the Mid-Continent Refinery in West Tulsa. Early in the strike both sides faced criticism for violence, as did the local authorities for their use of tear gas on the strikers. Hays, local president of the OWIU, charged city and county administrators with collusion and clamored for an investigation to bring about "enforcement of laws against all men alike regardless of their station in life." Witnesses would later claim that the Mid-Continent company had provided funding for the police to use tear gas and wiretapping methods.

Reports differ in estimating the length and effectiveness of the union shutdown of the Mid-Continent Refinery. However, airplanes were loaded with food and supplies for workers inside the plant before December 24, the day that Gov. Ernest W. Marland sent two hundred National Guard troops to take control of the situation. By Christmas all but one of Mid-Continent's Oklahoma properties had striking employees. The Mid-Continent Company fired approximately 240 strikers for violence and sabotage. They emerged as the sticking point in future negotiations. The company refused to rehire them, and the union would not settle the strike unless they regained their old jobs.

Although both sides committed acts of violence, including harassment, shootings, throwing acid through a window, cutting telephone lines, destroying property at DX (a Mid-Continent brand) gas stations, and spying, the two most notorious accusations stemmed from more than fifteen bombings of pipelines, mostly belonging to Cosden Pipe Line Company (a wholly owned subsidiary of Mid-Continent), that supplied the refinery with oil. There were also charges that the company, city, and National Guard wiretapped key union phone lines. In April 1939 Tulsa police arrested more than one hundred strikers for unlawful assembly, conspiracy, and directing a riot, and while the men languished in jail, their wives and children picketed the refinery and the courthouse. A Tulsa County grand jury brought indictments against ninety-nine of those strikers. The judge dismissed charges against six, and on May 18, 1939, the other ninety-three strikers received not guilty verdicts for unlawful assembly. The first trial of union leader Jack Hays, charged with directing a riot, ended in a hung jury, and he did not face another proceeding.

In 1939 and 1940 numerous entities made attempts at arbitration. After Gov. Leon Phillips failed on May 14, 1939, in disgust he withdrew the National Guard. Others who sought an agreement included a representative of the Oklahoma Board of Arbitration and Conciliation, J. C. Cooper of the National Department of Labor, national CIO officers, the NLRB, and even the Tulsa Tribune. In most cases, when the union approved a third arbitrator, the company balked. Legal processes also did not help. On February 27, 1939, a U.S. Supreme Court decision declared sit-down strikes illegal and upheld the Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation's right to discharge employees who participated. This verdict encouraged Mid-Continent executives to continue to refuse to rehire the 240 strikers.

A long, drawn-out NLRB hearing began on May 18, 1939. In December 1939 CIO official Maurice Dineen arrived in Tulsa. His inclusion irritated the Oklahoma/Arkansas region CIO head, David Fowler of Muskogee, who thought Dineen did not have the strikers' best interest in mind. Fowler threatened to resign, causing CIO president John L. Lewis to name Fowler, Hays, and OWIU president John Coulter as a CIO "peace committee" to settle the strike.

In 1940 the Oklahoma Department of Labor Biennial Report accurately summed up the period of dispute when it stated that "[if] any individual or agency by any stretch of imagination, could justify setting itself up as mediator arbitrator, or conciliator, it did so during the fifteen months this strike was in active existence. And in this case, as in most cases, some of them did more harm than good." Before the saga ended, it had involved federal grand jury investigations, nine months of NLRB hearings, much work by Governor Phillips's special investigators, a national CIO boycott of Mid-Continent products and stations, threats by the company to close the plant, threats by the CIO to stop all of the Mid-Continent products at the docks of the East and West Coasts, hundreds of hearings concerning unemployment compensation for strikers (at least 118 were awarded benefits and thirty-three denied, but opposition appealed each case), and considerable violence and destruction.

The parties agreed to a truce on March 21, 1940. The agreement stated that the strikers who had not been discharged would return to work. The discharged union men's cases would be reviewed within sixty days. At the end of six months the company and the OWIU would meet to discuss a new contract. The NLRB hearing would be postponed for sixty days while the 240 cases were reviewed. The union had rejected a similar settlement one year before.

The truce soon broke down. The hearing resumed in June 1940 and lasted until February 1942. By 1941 only two hundred of the more than six hundred strikers had been rehired. The OWIU estimated that the strike had cost them more than $200,000, and in their September 1941 convention, in an attempt to raise funds for a national membership drive, the OWIU officially terminated the Mid-Continent strike. On January 27, 1944, the NLRB handed down its final decision, which at the time was the longest-running case in its history and cost $150,381. The NLRB cleared the Mid-Continent Petroleum Company of all charges pertaining to the strike. The union still paid striker compensation as late as 1950.

Larry O'Dell

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James Paul Bailey, "Standing Out for Their Rights," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 76 (Fall 1998).

Ralph Miller Doughty, "The Mid-Continent Petroleum Corporation Strike of 1938: A Study in Oklahoma Industrial Relations" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1948).

Walter Galenson, The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935–1941 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960).

Diane M. Rubey, "Capital Versus Labor in Tulsa: The Mid-Continent Strike of 1938–40," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 84 (Spring 2006).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Mid-Continent Refinery Strike,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=MI005.

Published January 15, 2010

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