“I am doing terrible,” United Steelworkers Local President 624 President Mike Edelbrock says at the start of our conversation. Since May 25, 230 Husky Energy workers, including Edelbrock, have been out on an unfair labor practices strike stemming from what they allege is bad-faith bargaining. The workers at Husky Energy’s oil refinery in Lima, Ohio, aren’t striking over health care or benefits like many workers do, but rather over their desire to have flexibility in scheduling so that they can attend family events.
“They have been absolute jerks to the workforce,” says Edelbrock. “They limit how much time you can take off to spend with your family. At the beginning of talks, 70% of our issues were family issues on being allowed to swap shifts with other workers. It doesn’t affect the company financially. It has really festered a sense of resentment among us.”
Even Husky Energy agrees that the big issues prompting the strike aren’t economic, but ones of flexibility in scheduling. “The issues to be resolved are related to the company’s ability to maintain a flexible work force, increase safety, and reduce a higher-than-standard absenteeism rate,” Mel Duvall, a company spokesman, told the Toledo Blade.
Edelbrock disagrees with that assessment and says labor relations have become progressively worse since 2007 when Husky Energy acquired the Lima refinery from Valero.
“They just want to overmanage people,” says Edelbrock. “I tell the company, ‘Please tell me why it is a safety issue that I trade a shift with another worker if he is qualified for my job. Does it cost you anything?’ They just don’t have any answer of any sort. It’s just a control thing.”
Many of the workers feel as if the company is out to get the union and that things have gotten significantly worse since the last contract negotiation three years ago. The union says that the company has not resolved a single grievance since 2009 and, in an attempt to break the union, is forcing every dispute to go to arbitration. That has cost the union $64,000 since 2009, and as result, the number of grievances it brings to arbitration has been limited. The result is many day-to-day issues that upset workers in the plant have gone unresolved.
In addition to the issues around flexibility, the company has also demanded economic concessions from the workers. The union, which had already agreed to a two-tier wage system in the past, says the company asked to lower wages for new hires by $7.77 an hour. The company also wants to eliminate a cash balance pension for its workers and replace it with a 401(k). Oddly enough, the company has gone against the national trend and not demanded that the union give any concessions on health care. (The union agreed to pay 20% of its health care premiums in the past.) Finally, the union says that the company is demanding workers do away with seniority protections for when they bid on jobs in other parts of the plant.
After months of negotiations, the union voted by a nearly 5-1 to margin to go on strike, their first at the plant since 1980. The union claims they are out on an unfair labor practice strike and have filed charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that the company bargained in bad faith and engaged in regressive bargaining. If the NLRB rules that it is indeed an unfair labor practices strike, the company will not be able to replace the workers permanently. The NLRB has yet to hear the case and make a decision, but workers say they will stay out on strike for as long it takes
“Folks are just sick and tired of how the company has treated them. There is a general feeling of enough is enough,” says Edelbrock. “It would almost better if it was economics because you can throw money at people to get them to agree to something. This is just mistreatment and manipulation of people. People just feel bullied. It’s ridiculous we can’t get this settled. They are just trying to make a point that we are in charge and we are going to make you suffer. This is like, ‘We don’t give a damn, we are just going to put you to the test and see if we can win.’ ”
Edelbrock says that despite having their health care cut off and subsisting only on meager strike benefits that are a fraction of their regulary pay , workers have remained steadfast in their desire to strike. Edelbrock reports only 16 workers out of 230 union workers have crossed the picket line in the month-and-a-half-long strike.
After not meeting for weeks, Husky Energy called the union back to the negotiating table this week, but the union expects the company to wait for the workers to be out on strike for three months before reaching a settlement. That’s okay with Edelbrock, who feels that the union is willing to stand on the picket line for as long as it takes to get the company to respect the union.
“If you saw the attacks on workers from the states, it’s a virus that these companies want to run these workers into the ground, including us,” says Edelbrock. “We aren’t leaving til we get this shit fixed so we don’t have to put up with it.”