Strike? Refinery Workers Protest Concessions 2 Years After Deadly Explosion

Mike Elk

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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