After 6-Week Strike, Oil Workers Say They Have “Won Vast Improvements in Safety and Staffing”

David Moberg March 16, 2015

The nearly two-month-long strike may be close to ending. (Elizabeth Brossa / Flickr)

Nego­tia­tors from the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers and Shell, the lead bar­gain­er for union­ized oil refin­ing busi­ness­es, reached agree­ment on a new nation­al con­tract on Thurs­day. It was a first big step towards end­ing the nation’s largest oil refin­ing indus­try strike since 1980.

The unfair labor prac­tice strike start­ed at nine oil and chem­i­cal facil­i­ties on Feb­ru­ary 1, when the union accused the com­pa­nies of bad faith bar­gain­ing over key issues in the new con­tract that was under nego­ti­a­tion, pri­mar­i­ly health and safe­ty and relat­ed issues, such as con­tract­ing out main­te­nance work. Lat­er six more facil­i­ties joined the strike. Lat­er work­ers at six more facil­i­ties joined in the walk­out, for a total of more than 6,550 on strike.

Whether or not work­ers have been on strike there, each local union now needs to nego­ti­ate a con­tract that incor­po­rates the nation­al agree­ment and resolves local issues before the dis­pute — affect­ing about 30,000 work­ers at more than 100 refiner­ies and relat­ed facil­i­ties, who account for 64 per­cent of the indus­try — is ended.

Over many years, the indus­try has increased pres­sure on its gen­er­al­ly high-skill work­force, often forc­ing them to work 12-hour shifts for sev­er­al weeks straight.

They total­ly grab hold of our sched­ules to the point that the work­ers have no fam­i­ly life. I call it man­age­ment by stress’,” says south­ern Cal­i­for­nia local leader Dave Camp­bell. Work­ers suf­fer from fatigue and find it more dif­fi­cult to work safe­ly, he says.

They also are more vul­ner­a­ble to man­age­ment argu­ments that the com­pa­ny needs more out­side con­trac­tors, many of whom are non-union and are often less knowl­edge­able about the equip­ment than a reg­u­lar, full-time main­te­nance crew.

In nego­ti­a­tions, the com­pa­ny insist­ed that issues about staffing were part of management’s pre­rog­a­tive to con­trol the oper­a­tion and not legit­i­mate sub­jects of nego­ti­a­tion. The union did not win strict lim­its on over­time or out­side con­tract­ing, but will have an ongo­ing role in review­ing and eval­u­at­ing these issues in each plant.

USW spokesman Wayne Ran­ick explains that at every facil­i­ty there will be a review of work­loads and staffing involv­ing the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers. These will be com­pre­hen­sive reviews by both parties.” 

Now stan­dards are set by the Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute, but the indus­try group’s judg­ment does not sat­is­fy the union, some of whose lead­ers think that gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions or leg­is­la­tion will be need­ed to guar­an­tee both work­er and com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty. Ran­ick says that the union wants bet­ter quan­tifi­ca­tion of the fac­tors that go into staffing deci­sions and more active con­sul­ta­tion. The union also believes that, in the long run, repair work is the work of our mem­bers,” even though there are some dis­agree­ments with con­struc­tion trade unions whose mem­bers are often on out­side crews. 

Many con­trac­tor crews, along with man­agers, tech­ni­cians and even cler­i­cal work­ers have been recruit­ed to keep the plants run­ning dur­ing the strike, but pro­duc­tion has still slipped, part­ly account­ing for gas price hikes in parts of the coun­try, such as Cal­i­for­nia. Union lead­ers wor­ry about pub­lic anger with the high­er prices but blame man­age­ment. They wor­ry as well about dan­gers to the community.

It’s a lit­tle scary to think of cler­i­cal peo­ple oper­at­ing the cat-crack­er,” a high-tem­per­a­ture, high-tem­per­a­ture and dan­ger­ous piece of equip­ment, Camp­bell said.

The USW’s atten­tion to work­place and com­mu­ni­ty health and safe­ty, as well as its long-stand­ing alliance with envi­ron­men­tal groups on a wide range of issues, helped gen­er­ate sup­port for the strike from envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, such as Cit­i­zens for a Bet­ter Envi­ron­ment in Cal­i­for­nia, as well as a vari­ety of oth­er pro­gres­sive groups, includ­ing Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed and, in a rare sol­i­dar­i­ty action with a strike, MoveOn​.org.

The con­tract includes sub­stan­tial gains,” Camp­bell said, includ­ing pro­vi­sions on health and safe­ty. Wages will rise 12 per­cent over four years; health care cov­er­age remains the same (despite cor­po­rate attempts to roll back insur­ance pro­vi­sions); pen­sions remain unchanged; and there appears to be improved pro­tec­tion of a vari­ety of gains from past con­tracts that the com­pa­nies want­ed to treat as one-time agreements.

In the end, sol­i­dar­i­ty won the day, USW pres­i­dent Leo Ger­ard said. There was no way we would have won vast improve­ments in safe­ty and staffing with­out it.” 

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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