BY JERRY FREIWIRTH
HOUSTON - More than 100 striking chemical workers and their supporters from the surrounding neighborhood rallied against Rhone-Poulenc outside the plant gates here on May 13 to demand safe work conditions. Members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) Local 4-227 at Rhone-Poulenc hit the bricks May 6.
"We don't want to go in and lose our lives," Wesley Carter, chairman of the workers committee, told the cheering crowd. Rhone- Poulenc manufactures sulfuric acid and processes hazardous waste.
At the heart of the dispute between the 98 OCAW members and Rhone-Poulenc is the company's insistence on what it calls "autonomous maintenance." This means the company wants the right to order operators - those running the units - to carry out any and all maintenance and repair work on the complicated equipment that makes up these processing units. At the same time, they have slashed the number of unionized maintenance workers, who spend years training to carry out these jobs.
The rally was also addressed by Carol Alvarado, president of the Manchester Civic Club and a member of the plant's Community Advisory Committee. The strikers have consciously reached out for support to the surrounding Manchester community, which is overwhelmingly working-class and Chicano in composition. The attendance by dozens of residents from the neighborhood underscored the success of this effort.
Another group of workers from the same OCAW local attended the rally wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Locked out by Crown Petroleum! Us Today...You Tomorrow!!!" Nearly 300 of these OCAW members were locked out by Crown last February, after negotiations during which the company demanded the right to virtually eliminate seniority rights.
Dwight Burns, an instrument technician at Rhone-Poulenc, echoed the thoughts of many at the rally when he told this reporter, "You have to be blind not to see the pattern. First Crown locks out their workers, now Rhone-Poulenc hardballs it in our negotiations. We all know the oil and chemical companies up and down the Houston Ship Channel have a mutual assistance pact. If these two companies succeed in defeating the union, there will be many more to come."
At a public meeting the day after the walkout began, Carter explained to the 75 people present, "Our strike isn't over wages, even though we have had no rate increase for three years. This is about our safety and the safety of the community around the plant."
About 30 members of the surrounding neighborhood attended the meeting. They had been invited by an open letter issued by the union in English and Spanish.
"In recent years Rhone-Poulenc has put more and more pressure on us to run the plant in a way that we don't feel is safe," the flyer said. "They have tried to force us to do more and more work with fewer people. We have resisted that pressure as much as possible....We feel we had no choice but to strike."
Carol Alvarado told of previous efforts by community residents to put a stop to dangerous gas releases floating through their neighborhood. Although conditions had improved somewhat in recent years, she told of concerns by members of her association when they heard about recent conditions in the plant. It's the workers in the plant who are standing up for their safety and the safety of the surrounding community, she said.
Local 4-227's open letter read, "Many of us grew up in this neighborhood.... We know that if we run the plant so we are safe inside the fence, then you, our families and neighbors, will be safe outside the fence as well."
One maintenance worker at the plant took the floor to explain, "The boss is cutting us down paper thin." In 10 years the number of employees has been cut from 168 to 98.
Carter added, "We know what it's like watching the paint peel off your house. They say it won't hurt you. But we're not fools. There's been a rash of cancer striking workers at the plant, but the company industrial hygienist couldn't seem to find any cause."
So far, the strike is 100 percent effective. Joyce Baker, a veteran of the plant and a picket captain, explained on the picket line, "The company wanted a blank check. They said take it or leave it. They wanted operators to take on maintenance work that it takes years of training to learn. That's why more than 70 percent voted to strike."
Jerry Freiwirth is a refinery worker at Shell Oil in Houston
and a member of OCAW Local 4-367.
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