Workers Battle ExxonMobil Over Safety at Baton Rouge Refinery

Roger Bybee

With almost $500 billion in annual revenues, ExxonMobil is one of the world’s truly powerful corporations. With all its resources and riches, the mammoth energy firm — the largest on the Fortune 500 list — Texas-based ExxonMobil is not loyal to America. Former CEO Lee Raymond made clear that his company’s only loyalty was to maximizing returns for shareholders when he pronounced, I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.” Or, Raymond might have added, based on what’s good for U.S. workers and communities.”

The company has been resisting implementing a safety agreement at a Louisianan refinery that it already has agreed to around the country. ExxonMobil has been trying to undercut rest of oil industry on health and safety standards,” says Patrick Young of the United Steelworkers (USW) special campaigns department.

At a refinery employing 900 workers in Baton Rouge, La., the company has been resisting the appointment of a person for the crucial newly-created post of process safety management representative,” Young says. The Process Safety Management Representative, under the terms of a national agreement reached February 1 between the USW and the oil industry, would be selected by the union, subject to approval by the company and responsible for calling attention to safety hazards and demanding that they be addressed. 

The issue is part of larger negotiations between USW Local 13-12 and ExxonMobil, which are a new three-year contract. Local 13-12 members refused to vote on the company’s latest offer because it didn’t include the safety measure that is part of other union contracts at other refineries.

Exxon Mobil is the only company in the industry not living up to safety standards,” Young says. ExxonMobil has agreed to follow the safety agreement at refineries in Chalmette, La., Beaumont„ Texas, Billings, Mont., Torrance, Calif., but refuses to implement this provision at Baton Rouge.

Reuters reported two weeks ago:

An Exxon spokeswoman said the company was disappointed that workers did not have an opportunity to vote on its most recent contract offer at Baton Rouge.
We are disappointed that the United Steelworkers rejected our most recent offer, including wage increases that match the industry pattern,” said Exxon spokeswoman Stephanie Cargile.

For USW Local 13-12 members at the Baton Rouge refinery, the safety issue is a critical concern, explains Young. These people are working in one of the most dangerous industries in the world,” he says. They have eight times the likelihood of dying on the job as the average American worker. With the stakes so high, the Process Safety Management Representative should be answerable to workers whose lives are on the line, not management, [which is] seeking to maximize production and profits.”

Adding to the need for careful safety monitoring is the extensive amount of overtime demanded from the workers. These folks are working lots and lots of overtime,” Young says. They work 12-hour shifts regularly, but there may be more hours demanded within any given day day and lots of consecutive 12-hour shifts over long periods. “

But the workers face a corporation that is unwilling to treat any elected leader, any nation, or other entity as an equal. A new book about Exxon Mobil, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steven Coll, details the vast tentacles that the corporation has extended around the world to exercise raw power, as summarized in a New York Times review :

Private Empire details ExxonMobil’s harassment of environmental scientists], its messy entanglements in small wars in far-flung countries, its withholding of information from Congress, its dissembling about global warming, its arrogant culture, its obscene stockpiles of cash. “

ExxonMobil’s power is so overwhelming that, As President George W. Bush said to the prime minister of India in 2001, Nobody tells those guys what to do.”

But with the lives of their members on the line every day, USW Local 13-12 is not bacingk down on enforcing the safety provisions of the contract.

The USW has been waging a vigorous campaign to force ExxonMobil to live up to the contract. Today, it is gathering USW leaders from the other refineries where Exxon Mobil acceded to the Process Safety Management Representative provision to demonstrate that the Baton Rouge workers’ demands are reasonable and achievable.

On May 30, Young relates, the Steelworkers will be partnering with Occupy Dallas for a major demonstration outside the ExxonMobil annual stockholders’ meeting to ratchet up the pressure on the Baton Rouge safety issue.

The Steelworkers and their allies are determined to show that even if Congress and foreign governments capitulate to ExxonMobil, they are not giving in.

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers is a sponsor of In These Times.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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