Exxon is a known corporate miscreant, and nothing it does to preserve profits should come as a surprise anymore. And yet.
In the face of a crippling pandemic and job crisis, the company has decided to do what it does best: maximise shareholder value. A Reuters exclusive report on Thursday said the company is hellbent on paying out dividends to shareholders, and as part of a scheme to do so, it’s reportedly considering job and spending cuts. The company denied it, though Reuters pointed to circumstantial evidence the oil behemoth has been laying the groundwork that could make it easier to fire people based on performance metrics late last year as the pandemic worsened.
And really, would it be that surprising? The only thing that matters to Exxon is making rich people more money. It lied about climate change for decades and put the entire biosphere at stake. Laying off a few thousand workers in the middle of a pandemic so it can pay out shareholders as promised is like a picnic in the park for the company. Nevertheless, it neatly illustrates a few key points about this moment in time.
The first is that Big Oil is struggling mightily. Since the coronavirus ripped around the world and has stubbornly clung in the U.S. thanks to wildly incompetent and malevolent leadership, the economy has crashed. Unemployment is sky-high, the U.S. has seen its slowest economic growth rate ever, and basically nobody has any money to do anything (or they fear they might die if they do). Amidst this, oil companies have seen demand crater and profits disappear. It’s not just Exxon; other big firms like BP and Shell have also gone through layoffs and slashed earnings expectations while smaller firms are going bankrupt or just foregoing paying loans. Shell has said point-blank it isn’t sure its business will ever come back. The whole thing is a mess!
The second is their responses for dealing with the mess, which are telling, particularly Big Oil’s plans to layoff workers. Whether its Exxon’s reported coming wave of layoffs to pay out dividends or BP’s CEO calling laying off 10,000 people in its pursuit of moving beyond petroleum (vomit) the “right thing” to do, it’s clear as day workers are disposable in the face of profit or shifts in the market. It’s not that fossil fuel companies have a monopoly on hating workers and having a hard-on for shareholders. That’s a fixture of capitalism that’s been reinforced by the broken political system in the U.S. that has spent decades gutting worker protections and making it easier for the very rich to make even more money just by being rich.
The last thing to note is that this is all now happening at warp speed and at a scale rarely seen in a single industry, let alone in the face of a pandemic and a climate crisis that both threaten all of humanity. The fossil fuel era is ending as we speak. The question now is how fast it collapses. Rather than acknowledging that and taking care of the people who built it, Big Oil is using the last dollars extracted out of the burnt husk of our planet to line the pockets of the wealthiest among us.
If you can’t imagine what comes next, then take a look at coal. Its collapse over the past decade-plus in the U.S. reveals what’s coming for Big Oil. And we can see the wreckage left behind in the form of disinvestment in coal communities, coal miners with black lung, and companies that refuse to pay into the fund to help them deal with it while CEOs live in lavish mansions built with ill-begotten profits. The reported consideration by Exxon to slash its workforce to keep profits juiced is just a glimpse of what the next decade could look like for oil rig workers, pipeline builders, and others whose livelihoods are tied up in the fossil fuel industry.
Democrats like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others pushing for a just transition for workers through a period of managed decline while holding fossil fuel companies to account for the damage they’ve wrought have the right idea. It’s just a question of if they can get a strong enough grip on power to actually implement their plans before too many workers fall through the cracks.