They Wanted to Keep Working. ExxonMobil Locked Them Out.

Facing deunionization efforts and the existential threat of climate change, oil refiners in Beaumont, Texas, seek a fair contract.

Mindy Isser

The lockout began May 1, known in most parts of the world as International Workers’ Day. In a matter of hours, the ExxonMobil Corporation escorted 650 oil refiners in Beaumont, Texas, off the job, replacing experienced members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13 – 243 with temporary workers in an effort to force a vote on Exxon’s latest contract proposal. USW maintains the proposal violates basic principles of seniority, and more than three weeks after the union members were marched out of their facility, they remain locked out.

We would have rather kept everyone working until we reached an agreement,” Bryan Gross, a staff representative for USW, tells In These Times. That was our goal.”

Because strikes and lockouts are often measures taken under more dire circumstances, either when bargaining has completely stalled or is being conducted in bad faith, USW proposed a one-year contract extension. But Exxon rejected the offer, holding out for huge changes to contractual language regarding seniority, safety and layoffs. It’s a control issue,” Gross adds. Exxon wants control.”

As the oil industry attempts to deskill (and ultimately deunionize) its labor force, refinery workers like those in Beaumont find themselves under siege. Not only is their industry buckling beneath the weight of a global health crisis, but climate change has come to threaten their very livelihoods. Many workers remain skeptical of existing plans for a just transition.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, refiners have taken drastic measures to offset steep drops in the price of oil by reducing production, selling assets and even closing some facilities. While the unionization rate in the oil and gas industry is currently higher than the rest of the U.S. workforce (15% compared with nearly 11%, per Reuters), BP, Marathon Petroleum Corporation and Cenovus Energy have cut labor costs by either downsizing or subcontracting to non-union workers.

Exxon appears to be following along. Local 13 – 243 member J.T. Coleman, who has worked at the Beaumont refinery for a decade now, fears that hiring so many of these non-union workers to operate the facility could get somebody hurt. We’re familiar with the equipment,” he says. They’re not trained like we are.”

USW has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Exxon of refusing to bargain, modifying their agreement with the union and coercion. Exxon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from In These Times.

The complaints come at a time when the future of oil, in Texas and beyond, has never been more uncertain. In February, three severe winter storms walloped the state, killing 100 people and leaving millions without power. Similar storms hit Texas in both 1989 and 2011, but state lawmakers failed to heed calls from experts to upgrade the power grid at the time. When temperatures plunged below freezing this February, many sources of power in the state failed, including those generated from natural gas. 

Production at the Beaumont refinery was shut down for a week, but many of its operators continued their shifts, some staying in the plant for 24 hours at a time. We weren’t set up for the freeze, so they were defrosting lines and pumps, de-icing stuff so they could get moving on the product again,” says Hoot Landry, a staff representative for USW. But we don’t get any credit for that.”

Nearly 40 million barrels of oil were lost during the production freeze. Perhaps in a sign of things to come, refinery workers shifted from producing and manufacturing oil products to restoring power for those affected by the extreme weather.

The impact of these storms has not been lost on the Sunrise Movement, which has become a political home for young people in the fight against climate inaction. On May 10, 20 Sunrise Movement activists began a 400-mile march from New Orleans to Houston to demand the Biden administration adopt the Green New Deal.

[Our members aim to] learn from our neighbors here in the Gulf South about what they’re facing, the solutions that they’re already pioneering, the fights they’ve won, and the fights they still need help fighting,” says katie wills evans, a volunteer local press coordinator for the group. We’re doing all of that to bring attention to the need for a Green New Deal and a good jobs guarantee.”

If the Sunrise Movement ultimately succeeds in getting some version of the Green New Deal passed, then, in theory, the Beaumont refinery would be closed and members of Local 13 – 243 would be trained for different work. According to wills evans, these jobs would be more fulfilling, more purposeful, less damaging to our planet and less dangerous to workers.”

We want to work next to you,” wills evans continues. We want you to make the same amount of money and have the protection of a union and have healthcare for your family.”

While oil workers and environmental activists are understandably suspicious of one another, wills evans believes they have more in common than they may think — namely, a shared enemy in oil bosses like Exxon. As Sunrise Movement activists make their way to Houston by the end of June, wills evans hopes they will meet with the locked-out refinery workers to offer their solidarity and support. 

I’m the great granddaughter of a coal miner, I come from Appalachia where coal mining fed us,” wills evans says. But [refinery workers] are on a picket line locked out right now, so can they say they have a good job?”

Good or not, neither the refinery workers nor USW staff who spoke with In These Times see oil jobs going anywhere any time soon. They don’t especially want them to go anywhere, either — even if they recognize the dangers of climate change. I think we have to start moving towards a cleaner environment,” Gross says. “[But] oil is going to be around a really long time; I don’t think it is going to go away overnight.”

Prior to USW, Gross worked at a separate refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, which is par for the course in the Gulf South. Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi are home to more than half a million jobs in the oil and gas industry. And no matter how unstable these jobs may feel — no matter how destructive they may be to the environment long term — many communities rely on them for their survival.

I would entertain other jobs, but I take pride in my work,” Coleman says. I don’t work for Exxon because I love the company. I work for it for its benefits. And as long as those benefits exist, it’s going to be a part of my life.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to oil refiners aligning themselves with an organization like the Sunrise Movement is the lack of clarity surrounding a just transition. Many want to know what will happen to workers in extractive industries, and they fear promises made to them now will not be kept. Still, the lockout in Beaumont makes clear that a distinctly unjust transition is already underway: refiners are losing control over their worksite as employers seek to reduce their exposure in an increasingly unstable industry.

We want to be back to work, but we want to do it with a fair agreement that is not solely beneficial to one side,” Coleman adds. We are willing to work. We all want to return to work. But we want to do it with something that ensures our security, our seniority and our safety.”

But as climate change accelerates and weather patterns become more extreme, these jobs may never be safe or secure again.

Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
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