Archive for May, 2010

“Nothing Venture” 6

May 31, 2010

Time for a spot of novel writing discussion, but will continue with the outline of events lower down the page. I’m relating all this background from memory, and feeling quite pleased that it seems well remembered. Almost all the books on writing insist the budding writer keeps a journal and I never have. My feeling is that if I don’t remember it, it couldn’t have been very memorable. Of course, anything I don’t remember won’t be here.

I have one suggestion for a defence – I wasn’t taking part in the attempt to buy an oil refinery in order to write a book. But it would be a good idea to have kept better record anyway. Actually, I think I have some original material in a box around the house – I haven’t attempted to use it because I don’t know which box, or where.

I believe all the critical stratagems and setbacks are firmly in mind because they were so vital at the time. The big difference in the writing of them is whether one is writing a history or a dramatisation. Memoire is sometimes held to be superior to fiction – until a writer is revealed to have invented the true stories related. I didn’t want to write memoire but to put myself behind the curtain to let the actions and deceptions speak for themselves.

Here I stick to the facts as recalled, because I’m outlining the events – a kind of history-lite, without the footnotes. We were involved with three oil companies in the attempt to buy the Calgary refinery: Imperial, the owner; Mohawk who wanted to steer our joint venture into ownership; and Turbo Resources who wanted to expand their operations with a refinery, and took an interest in buying an old one.

Don Skagen of Mohawk didn’t come out of the venture completely empty handed. For about a year, while Imperial’s people were keeping up the mantra of “if and when we sell the refinery”, he worked at solidifying the venture and finalizing the conditions of the joint venture agreement. We workers in Calgary Refining went along with the process – it was the only game in town.

Not so, Mohawk. On one visit to Toronto, the Imperial people offered Don Skagan some old refinery towers and exchangers stockpiled near Vancouver. At the time, there was a shortage of refining capacity able to supply ‘Bunker C’, the oil product used on steamships to fuel the boilers. Skagen thought it offered an opportunity and bought them – but I recognized afterwards that it was a case of Imperial giving him the rope to hang himself.

Soon he had enough refinery problems on his plate – site location; permits; construction materials; construction contractor; local NIMBYs; and local political brouhaha – to satisfy any would-be refinery operator. I really don’t remember whether his Bunker C refinery ever did refuel steamships – or whether the steady switch to diesel powered ships ended the fuel shortage.

I do remember his words to us at one of our last meetings when we spoke of the need to use political and public sympathy against Imperial’s stonewalling. “You fellows just have the interests of yourselves to look after. I have the livelihoods of over 2000 Mohawk employees and franchisees to consider.” Not exactly an acknowledgement of the business, economic, and social pressures he was under – but a pretty solid hint.

We took that hint and went looking for another joint venture partner; and it seemed we found one in Turbo Resources. I’ll give you their story next time.

“Nothing Venture” 5

May 25, 2010

The novel about a workers’ attempt to buy an oil refinery. The (true) background story continues –

Once the executives came back from New York they didn’t inform us of any change in Imperial’s stance, but now the expressions of cooperation became, “if and when the refinery is put up for sale …” – clearly, the powers at Exxon in New York had changed Imperial’s mind.

At the same time, the people in Alberta’s Conservative government who had been accessible to us suddenly became hard to contact. Phoning one of the contact people always resulted in a receptionist saying, “I’m afraid Mr SoandSo has just stepped out of the office” or “I’m afraid Mr Soandso is across the road”. “What is your number? I’ll tell him you called.” And then it would seem that the phone lines out of Edmonton must all have gone out of service.

Ever been given a run-around? We had a front row seat to one. Suddenly the urge to increase rather than decrease the amount of oil processing in Alberta had become much less compelling – on the part of the government, at least. We tried to get the media on our side, but the media in North America is owned by the same people we were looking to badger. I did manage to get an interview with Barbara Frum at “As it Happens”, the long running CBC radio investigative program, but I had just come off night shift at the refinery and wasn’t my best – and it seemed she had already decided her responses and only wanted my answers to confirm them. I never did hear the interview broadcast, I believe it only ran in Eastern Canada.

We fell back on our one politician who would speak to us, Grant Notley, the lone opposition member in the legislature. Yes – it was definitely a run-around. He was very familiar with the procedure whenever he attempted to question or investigate a government activity. Democracy? Never in Alberta.

With Imperial Oil’s annual shareholder’s meeting coming up, Bill our company president, bought one share in that company – that entitled us to a seat in the meeting. He and I flew down to Toronto and checked in to the Royal York. We first called all the news media in town to let them know we were setting a time for a press conference. We had one reporter respond and gave up our idea of holding a big show in a rented meeting room. The reporter who showed turned out to be someone very familiar with all the Imperial executives and who expressed the concern that we could be out of our depth,

We visited Imperial’s head office and spoke to the manager who had been most supportive of our bid to keep the refinery running. He didn’t say much, but his farewell words were, “Keep your dukes up.”  We attended the shareholder meeting and watched all the little puppets in grey suits jump up at the rehearsed times to ask the planted questions so the CEO could give the prepared answers. Bill managed to get a microphone and asked our question about the fate of the workers’ offer to buy the refinery. The answer was a string of pablum about business conditions, business secrecy, and the way the company executive was the authority to do what was best for the facility and the shareholders.

The few people at Calgary Refining and the 2000 or so at their joint venture partner Mohawk were up against the largest of the huge Big Five oil companies. Working through both democratic government and free enterprise had proved futile. It was hardly an equal contest, but we looked around for a way to swing some of the action to our favour. Next time I will cover the effect on our industry partner – and our search for a new one.

Nothing Venture 4

May 12, 2010

Before I get into the first Joint Venture meeting I have to remind readers that this series of posts is not specifically about our worker attempt to buy the Calgary Refinery from Imperial Oil – it’s about the novel I later wrote about the affair and what I learned about writing as well as life from the whole experience. At the moment, I’m giving you the true life plot that formed the basis of the novel – well, two different drafts – that I wrote a few years later. This thread starts below at Nothing Venture 1.

The meeting with our potential partner took place in the boardroom of Mohawk Oil Company Ltd behind their service station on Fairmount Drive, Calgary. (The company was bought up by Husky Oil in 1998, and last time I looked the service station had gone.) We met Donald Skagen who was the Executive Vice President, the man who actually ran the company at that time. He told us that Mohawk, which had a significant number of gas stations in Western Canada, was looking to expand further and acquiring a refinery was their next step up.

He proposed developing a joint venture with Calgary Refining, the employees’ company, to pursue an investigation of the refinery economics with a view to offering to buy the facility from Imperial. Mohawk would be the manager and operator of the refinery while Calgary Refining would be the employee and staff contractor. We would be given good terms for our worker owners to acquire ownership shares in the joint venture.

There are a number of other details that might not interest the reader looking for the outcome and the novel, so I’ll mention that the workers’ first investors were 20 guys who bought in to a syndicate that financed our part of the purchase plan. These were the minority group that actually had money on the line, and we three directors were the first ones on the hook.

When Mohawk initially approached Imperial about doing a feasability study of the refinery with a view to making an offer for it, they were well received. The manager in charge of all the Imperial refineries in Western Canada had been a refinery manager there previously and had a soft spot for the old place. Imperial threw open a great number of the technical and production records and at each subsequent meeting with Don Skagen he was able to tell us that the purchase looked more and more to be a sound business investment.

We saw all kinds of advantages to the community, Calgary would retain the industry; and having an independent refinery, could look forward to price competition between the Oil Companies locally. We saw the refinery jobs saved and a future ownership stake that promised us dividends as well as our wages. Some of the units in the refinery were irreplaceable, the Alkylation Unit –  that I progressed through operations to become shift operator for – had been built during WWII to provide iso octane, the high octane component in the aviation fuel that wartime aircraft needed. This was still in demand for high performance automobiles as well as the significant number of aircraft  in service at the time that were powered by piston engines. It also seemed a given that Imperial Oil’s shareholders would receive a much better price for the facility in running order than they would get for it as scrap metal.

For almost a year, the joint venture’s prospects seemed excellent as a number of steps toward the eventual purchase were attained. Then one day, Bill, the worker company’s president, phoned the Imperial Oil manager of western refineries about something and was told, “Oh, Mr Sand’s not available. He’s in New York.” “What about Mr Sirois, the Vice President in charge?” “I’m afraid not. He’s in New York as well.” We soon learned what that meant, and I’ll tell you next time.

Blog Jog Day

May 8, 2010

Thank you for stopping by my Blog. Please explore all this Blog has to offer, then jog on over to  http://writersinthesky.blogspot.com/. If you would like to visit a different Blog in the jog, go to http://blogjogday.blogspot.com.

On this site I’m blogging about my published novels (see Pages at the right sidebar linking to sample chapters and reviews) as well as various discussions of interest to writers, readers and others. I’m particularly interested in having visitors check out the chapter and review of my latest release “The Wildcat’s Burden”. If you would like to leave a comment on either the review (archived under March), the blurb under “About The Wildcat’s Burden”, or the sample first chapter below, I will conduct a draw for a free e-book copy. (Better leave a link where I can find you and your preferred format in the comment.)

I am currently blogging about a novel I wrote a number of years ago that was based on an attempt to buy a refinery from a major oil company. I was secretary-treasurer of the workers’ company and am giving an account of what happened to the refinery bid and to the novel under the headings Nothing Venture. Neither achieved success, but I think there are many things in the posts that will be of interest to writers as well as activists. Some good cautions as well as pointers by the time I finish. Nothing Venture 1 through 3 are below and 4 will be posted soon (by post 5 or 6 I should be finished with the background and starting what I learned from writing the novel.).

Best wishes to all……………Chris H

Sample Chapter from The Wildcat’s Burden

May 6, 2010

Chapter One – Riot

Major Gisel Matah, military governor of the city of Skrona in liberated Tarnland, stepped onto the concourse at the top of the Town Hall steps as the mob reached the Great Square. Her four Iskander security guards fanned out around them as the two officers accompanying her scanned the approaching crowd.

“You were right, Major.” Captain Jans commanded the cavalry of the garrison, the same 3rd Light Cavalry she’d led in the last campaign the previous year. “The demonstration has turned into trouble, but my troopers are ready.”

Gisel studied the crowd a moment, all displaced Lubitz settlers. They had genuine grievances, but she wasn’t about to let them bring their anger into the streets. The mob streamed down the three major arteries into the square from Hagriche Park where their leaders had inflamed them with speeches. The words they shouted were incomprehensible but raised fists and brandished iron bars and pick helves told her everything she needed to know.

“Return to your squadrons, Captain Jans. Seal off all the exits from the square once the mob is inside. Leave the main avenue to the naval docks open. Keep your sabres sheathed unless I order otherwise. Your officers will herd the protestors south against the dockyard walls.”

“Yes, Major, but I will leave you a half troop here to support your Peace Officers.”

She turned her head to fix him with a fierce stare. Her men had started bending her orders of late – something they’d not presumed to do with her instructions before. Almost in the last month of her pregnancy, they treated her as a delicate flower instead of the fierce Wildcat. She scowled and shook her head. “I may waddle like a goddamned duck, but I can still shoot straight.”

Jans grinned and saluted.

As he turned away she softened her tone. “I appreciate your consideration, Captain; a section will do. My husband will be grateful for your care of me while he’s away.” Yohan bitterly railed at her commanders, who refused to allow her maternity leave, but clearly they did not want the pregnancy to diminish her Wildcat persona. Ha! Thanks, guys.

The Lieutenant of the Peace Officers, once a sergeant of the town militia, regarded her expectantly. “My men are in the street behind the building, Governor. What are your orders?”

Gisel eyed the crowd that streamed into the square. Mostly men, but she could see women and a few children running between the groups of ruffians. “Form your men into a single line across the concourse, about fifty paces from the bottom of the steps. Hold firm to keep the mob from reaching the building.”

He licked his lips. “Yes Governor . . .. There are . . . a lot of them.”

“I see that, but I have backup for you.” She scanned around the tiled rooftops of the tall buildings opposite, looking for visible heads. “My riflemen are waiting on the far side of the roofs for my order to move forward. You understand that I do not want to have them open fire, but if your men are threatened I will so order them.”

“Thank you, Governor.” He threw a loose salute, pivoted about, and marched away.

She had selected his detachment recruited from the Lubitz citizens to keep order against their countrymen. The Tarnlish Peace Officers were patrolling the rest of the city. The genocidal dissension between the two groups wasn’t new – it had been ongoing ever since Iskander captured the city five years before. Forty percent of the inhabitants were from Lubitz and they disputed the inevitability of returning Skrona to the Tarnlish crown.

Their anger had caused this riot. A group of Lubitz citizens had accepted an offer to travel to new lands outside Tarnland where they would build new homes. It was a good deal for the new settlers, but their fellows remaining behind demonstrated against reducing their numbers and power.

She was as much a target of the anger as her fellows. Her first successful undercover mission had opened the main gate to let Lord Ricart’s Iskander cavalry columns take the city. Since the stranding of the starship Iskander on Gaia seven years before, their technology had revolutionized the 17th century world. But the changes that had improved the lives of many had diminished the power of others. Those who had lost, hated them.

Everyone assumed her governorship had been a reward for her early success. She knew better – it was no reward – the position she held required her to take actions she hated. She believed any action ethical when defending herself, but keeping order over an unruly populace narrowed her options to a knife edge. Tarnland’s rulers expected her to seize these ringleaders and hang them – but she wouldn’t. Neither would she let loose the cavalry sabres to cut down rioting citizens – unless she had no option left.

A movement to her right made her turn her head. The Peace Officers in full riot gear marched into the square in single file. She caught the Lieutenant’s eye and clapped her hands together. He turned to march backwards as he gave an order. The men raised their riot shields and clapped their riot sticks against them in a loud cadence to their marching steps.

The ominous sound echoed across the square as the men marched into position. Most of the oncoming crowd slowed but some picked up rocks to throw. The Peace Officers pulled down their face shields and turned to face the crowd. They locked their shields into a continuous wall and braced themselves against the expected onslaught.

Gisel turned to gesture to one of her orderlies in the doorway. “Bring me a loudhailer.”

The clatter of hooves heralded the arrival of a dozen cavalrymen. She smiled as she recognised the leader – Sergeant Major Cubbins, one of her most reliable men of the 3rd Light Cavalry the previous year. He now commanded the new D Squadron as Iskander built up the battle-scarred battalion to full strength.

Those in the mob who had resumed running forward slowed to a walk at the arrival of the cavalry. With their eyes on the horsemen, they edged across the square to about twenty metres from the riot police – throwing stones at them. Behind the first ranks of the mob she recognised Nakred the rabble-rouser and Davadis the hot-headed reporter for the Skrona-Lubitz News – a fledgling free press that Iskander had encouraged. Gisel ruefully acknowledged the paper she allowed to operate fanned the flames of the Lubitz citizens’ resentment.

Her orderly reached her with the loudhailer and she switched it on to put to her lips. She gulped a deep breath, not quite full with her babe pressed up against her diaphragm. “Pavel Nakred,” she boomed, “permission to hold this gathering is rescinded. Disperse these people at once.”

“Not until you have heard our grievances,” he shouted back.

“Order your people to cease throwing stones.”

“Their anger is too strong for me to so speak. You may shout with your huge voice machine.”

Gisel signalled to the sergeant of the Assault Infantry Company, near the door behind her. In a moment, the riflemen climbed over the roofs to take up positions where they could shoot down into the crowd. She fixed her gaze on Nakred. “Order your people to disperse before I quench their anger with rifle bullets.”

Nakred and his companions turned to stare up at the surrounding riflemen. After a minute’s argument he faced her again. “I don’t believe you will do it.”

A movement beside him revealed one of his bodyguards carrying a firearm – possibly a cavalry carbine. He seemed ready to aim at her. Fear for her unborn child lanced through her.

She covered her belly with both arms as she turned to the sergeant. “Your sharpshooter. Quick!”

He shouted into his radio and a shot rang out from a window above them in the building . The armed man threw up his hands and collapsed with a shriek.

Her heart pounded in her breast and she felt sweat break out all over her forehead and down to her shoulders. She had thrown down her biggest trump – would he call her bluff? “There’s one. Do you want to see a hundred fall? A thousand? I have killed that many on the battlefield – I can do it more easily here.”

Those at the rear of the mob shouted. At first she thought they wanted to know who had fired, but the sounds turned to cries of alarm. Gisel could see into several of the thoroughfares from her vantage point. The cavalry appeared in the distance, horses shoulder to shoulder. Good for Jans – he had judged his moment to a tee.

All around Nakred and Davadis the mob milled about, bending toward the fallen man and gesticulating. No doubt they shouted to one another, but their voices were lost in the din of the mob. Nakred emerged from the milling crowd, his voice indistinct. “You . . . killed . . . cousin. I accuse . . . cold-blooded murder.”

“Order your people to disperse or there will be more. Do you see the cavalry advancing down the avenues? I have only to give the order for them to break into a charge.”

“Never!” He stepped out of the mob, arms on hips. “Shoot me down, you bitch. I will not move from here.”

Gisel caught Sergeant Major Cubbin’s eye. The old soldier’s face looked grey but he nodded his head toward the riot police, now standing motionless and unengaged.

She caught his meaning – a good idea. “Lieutenant!” she said in a lower voice. “Take six of the riot squad forward and seize that man. Arrow formation. Sgt Major, take your horses in support.”

This had to work. If the mob resisted the police advance she’d have no choice but to order the riflemen to fire. Her pulse pounded like a jackhammer. It all depended on the execution – her men must act before the crowd realised what they were doing.

She needed to hold the crowd’s attention. She raised the loudhailer again. “Pavel Nakred, if you want to discuss your settlers’ grievances, I am willing to listen. But this square must be cleared first. Send the people to the Autarch’s Avenue and leave by way of the dockyard wall.”

“No! You will not intimidate us. Your Wildcat trick is -”

His words dried up as the wedge of riot police charged him. He attempted to dodge back to his escort but the two flanking columns of cavalry horses pushed the dense mass of rioters closed. The riot squad seized him and frog-marched him away, even as his protective escort reacted. These men were armed, Gisel could see several muskets and at least one more stolen Iskander firearm. Their attempts at rescue were beaten back by the sabres of Cubbins’ men. Three of the rioters fell before the rest fled into the crowd.

Gisel watched the mob mill about, some running forward, some back. At this point she expected anything. They could rush forward to attempt a rescue or they could break and flee in terror. The riot squad did exactly the right thing – testimony to the painstaking effort she’d put into their training. They marched forward again, beating their riot sticks against their shields, closing their ranks around the withdrawing men and their prisoner.

Gisel raised the volume on the loudhailer. “Your ringleader has agreed for you to disperse,” she boomed. “Leave the square. Go down Autarch’s Avenue to the dockyard walls. Go quickly and I will hold the cavalry back. All of your grievances will be heard. I give you my word.”

The mob wavered, their voices loud and shrill. Davadis stood firm, shouting at her but drowned out by the din.

“Oddr Davadis,” Gisel boomed again. “Your chance has failed. Do not lead more of these innocents to their destruction. The demonstrators are dispersing – their protest has been heard. Go in peace.”

She found herself holding her breath as she watched. The Sgt. Major’s small cavalry force regrouped against the front rank of the mob. No one attempted to rush forward to pull them from their mounts. That in itself said the nerve of the rioters had been broken. As the cavalrymen urged their horses slowly against them the mob fell back, sweeping Davadis and the remaining ruffians away with them.

The crowd changed from a pattern of angry faces to their retreating backs. Women rushed to grab up their children; men hastened to shield their wives. Gisel let out a long breath. Her hands trembled, but this time she’d won. Governorship as a reward? Hell no, it was torture.

Blog Jog is coming

May 3, 2010

Blog Jog Day is May 9th. Get more details at http://blogjogday.blogspot.com/

Nothing Venture 3

May 2, 2010

After the Western Diversification Conference ended I received a phone call at home from Fred Peacock, Alberta’s Minister of Industry and Commerce. It lasted quite awhile as I recall and he grilled me steadily to learn who I was, what we wanted to do about the refinery, and what resources in people and finances we might have. He lectured me that the Conservative government of Peter Lougheed was neither pro-labour nor socialist but was very eager to see industrial diversification in the province. If we were prepared to undertake a sound business investigation into keeping the refinery operating, he would act as an advisor and referee.

The guys at the refinery who had supported us had a meeting. Were we up to this? What to do first?

The government may not be socialist, but we felt safer contacting worker friendly people first. Most of the active guys were union members, the local president and secretary included. I wasn’t even a member at that point, if I recall correctly. I got in touch with an engineer in the oil industry who had run, unsuccessfully, for Parliament and the Alberta Legislature, under the New Democrat banner, NDP – Canada’s leftist political party. He listened awhile and responded that he had a friend who had helped a group of workers in a refinery in Utah (I believe) start a worker owned company. He would arrange a meeting between us.

We had a meeting in a coffee shop, and out of it we came with the understanding that we had better get busy setting ourselves up as a company – and that he had a contact in the Alberta oil industry who could be very interested in the Calgary Refinery. The first organisation meeting of Calgary Refining Ltd took place in the Calgary Union Hall – the building (now demolished) where the NDP was born. We picked positions and our union local president became company president, the union local secretary became vice president, and I wound up with secretary-treasurer.

After looking to see if having a non-union person on the company board made a difference – it didn’t – I soon joined the union. We were, by this time deep into worker-management ideas and meeting with our National Union president, who had formerly been leader of the NDP in Alberta, as well as the only opposition member of the Alberta Legislature – of any stripe – the late Grant Notley, for further advice.

First of all, we needed to throw some money in the pot to get us started. Bill, who was now our company president had ambitious ideas. He picked one of the most prestigious legal firms in Calgary to be our legal adviser, and similarly one of the top accounting firms to help set up our financial organisation. That was how I came to receive an intensive indoctrination into book keeping, tax filings and other government requirements, and sundry other things I needed to know to keep things legal and keep the executive – us – out of a fraud investigation. It was a good business education that I had never looked for.

We were barely on our feet with business cards and letterhead on our stationery before our NDP affiliated business agent called to say he had a meeting arranged with the Executive VP of a Canadian Independent Oil Company and we were to talk about a joint venture. I’ll tell you about that next time.