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Working In These Times

Friday, Apr 13, 2012, 3:22 pm

Strike? Refinery Workers Protest Concessions 2 Years After Deadly Explosion

BY Mike Elk

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USW members protest Tesoro. (Photo courtesy USW-Local 675)  

On April 2, 2010, an explosion rocked Tesoro's oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., killing three workers instantly. Another four workers died later in the hospital. The refinery shut down for nearly six months as the refinery was repaired, costing the company Tesoro at least $35 million in fines, refinery repairs, and downtime according to the United Steelworkers union (USW).

Despite Tesoro making $546 million in profits last year and paying its CEO $8.8 million, Tesoro is now demanding workers make massive concessions, according to the union. They include pushing to eliminate retiree healthcare plans, contribute less to retirement plans, and insert contract language that would allow the company to make unilateral change to the contract in the middle of the contract, says USW Local 12-591 President Steve Garey.

“We create tremendous value for this corporation and we risk our lives frankly every day to do it,” Garey says. “We aren't shooting for the moon here with this contract. All we are asking for is a fair level of benefits for the terms of the agreement. Looking at the way they reward their senior executives versus how they treat us, it looks like a 1% vs. 99% kind of thing.”

Tesoro did not respond to requests to comment on this story.

Some workers feel Tesoro is asking them for concessions in order to pay for the money lost as a result of the refinery closing—and 1,300 workers at four different facilities could go out on strike at the same time to force the company to drop its demands. The facility in Anacortes, along with plants in Martinez, Calif., and Mandan, N.D., are already struggling for a contract with the Fortune 100 corporation. A contract is set to expire at a Los Angeles refinery at the end of April. 

The facilities in Mandan, N.D., Anacortes, Wash., and Martinez, Calif., have all voted to authorize a strike. Workers at the Los Angeles facility are expected to take a strike vote soon.

“With the four facilities that we still have in bargaining, we represent 78 percent of their [refining] capacity," says Jeff Clark, USW Local 5 President in Martinez. "We don’t think it’s possible for them to run them safely without the union members running. We still have quite a bit of leverage."

Workers also say the call for concessions coming two years after the explosion has unified workers to fight back.

“For us, it's personal. We feel the company hasn't been doing the type of maintenance work that is required by regulation," Garey says. "Now that we lost these people, we certainly plan to protect our benefit plans. We have a dozen children left without parents and they need the pension plans.

“Most of the employees are younger and they don’t have much experience of what it is to stand up to a corporation. They have been learning and participating,” says Garey. “They are becoming increasingly determined. Some of the old dogs weren’t so sure how these young people would respond. I have been encouraged by their participation.”

For now, the union hopes that its preparation and willingness to strike will force Tesoro to backtrack. 

“Here in Anacortes, we’ve already paid enough for their mistakes. Some of us have paid with our lives, the rest of us have lost friends and family members,” says Mark Laurence. “We’ve paid with sweat, blood, and tears, and we’re not going to pay anymore.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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