The agreement enables the union workers to begin returning to work over the next few months.
The workers at Crown voted 72-56 by mail-in ballot to accept the contract after attending a union meeting where the contract was discussed. Workers had voted at a union meeting in October to reject a similar contract.
The agreement covers about 160 bargaining unit jobs. The bulk of the maintenance work once performed by union workers will now be performed by temporary workers employed by contractors, as will warehouse, safety repair, and material handler jobs. Other job losses can be attributed to job consolidations in operations.
The contract rejected in October required workers to take physicals and a series of written tests before returning to work. Failure of any of the tests could have resulted in being fired.
While the new contract still requires workers to take the tests, the penalty for failure is removed, with the exception of the physical, which workers must still pass. For those who don't, the contract provides minimal medical leave benefits. The earlier contract proposal did not.
The contract also provides wage increases, but from the 1996 base--when the lockout began--which puts the workers four years behind in wage increases. They will receive a 4.4 percent raise immediately and another 3.5 percent increase in seven months.
Phyllis Miller, a worker at Crown for 20 years and a leader of the fight, said she didn't like the terms of the contract. "But I'm ready for it to be over," she added, "although I'll probably be one of the people who won't go back to work."
Miller expressed the concern that Crown bosses would use the new language in the contract to "weed out" unionists they did not want back in the plant.
Workers will begin returning to work in early February, in groups of 20 over a period of months. Some workers will be retrained on the jobs they held prior to the lockout, while others, due to the contracting out of jobs, will be required to learn new jobs.
Of the 252 workers locked out in 1996, about 90 have since resigned or retired, many due to economic hardships. Crown changed the rules of its employee 401(k) savings plan shortly after the lockout began, making it extremely difficult for workers to withdraw their money. Many workers were forced to resign or retire in order to gain access to these funds. Some resigned as part of preemployment conditions for other jobs.
Many of the remaining workers have found jobs at other chemical plants and refineries or in other industries and professions.
In the months leading up to the lockout, the unionists organized to resist the company's antiunion attacks. In December 1995, in response to the company's sweeping demands for concessions, workers began circulating a petition demanding a decent contract. All 252 workers signed the petition.
On Jan. 18, 1996, 175 workers met in the parking lot at the end of the day shift and marched to the company's administration building to present their petition to the refinery manager, Randall Trembly.
They marched in to the building chanting, "We ain't gonna take it! We ain't gonna take it!"
Crown called the police and claimed the workers were rioting. The cops, once inside the building, shoved their way to the front of the crowd, where they ordered the unionists to leave the building. The workers refused. They demanded to speak to Trembly.
Eventually, the workers agreed to leave the building, but only after Trembly agreed to come outside and meet with them.
Union membership at the refinery was high. According to antiunion "right-to-work" laws in Texas, companies can "encourage" workers not to join the union even after they have won the right to organize. In the months prior to the lockout, five workers did not belong to the union. By the time the lockout began in February 1996, union membership in the plant was 100 percent.
Contract negotiations continued until February 5, when Crown bosses ordered their security guards to escort all the union workers out of the refinery.
Crown thought the unionists would fold in a few weeks, evidenced by the fact that they did not hire replacement workers until a few months into the lockout. The company initially operated the refinery with supervisors, engineers, and clerical staff, who had to work long hours to keep it running. They did not begin to hire replacements until after their salaried personnel began reporting emotional and physical problems as a result of the work conditions.
During the course of the five-year lockout, the employer attempted to break the union, using the courts, the police, the FBI, and financial hardship. They started charging workers hundreds of dollars for health insurance that was formerly covered by Crown. They hired hundreds of replacement workers. Their security guards harassed the pickets night and day. They hired private investigators to follow locked-out workers.
The company accused workers of sabotaging the refinery while they were still working there. They called in the FBI, which conducted a so-called investigation. The FBI offered as much as $60,000 to the locked-out workers for "information," but got no takers. The investigation was closed in 1999--they never charged anyone with a crime.
In January 1998, Crown filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against 14 workers and the local union, reasserting its allegations of sabotage. Hundreds of hours of depositions were taken from workers, with tens of thousands of pages of documents turned over to the company. The tactics used by the Crown bosses changed with the seasons. When they could not successfully frame the workers using one approach, they would change their tactic and their allegations and give it another go. When that didn't work, they changed it again. Crown persisted in harassing union members through this lawsuit right up to the end of the lockout.
Bosses initiate red-baiting campaign
With the help of the Houston Chronicle, the bosses initiated a red-baiting campaign that targeted Dean Cook with the goal of splitting the union.
In the Aug. 13, 1999, issue of the Chronicle, reporter L.M. Sixel repeated company charges that "the Baltimore refiner claims a local union leader who has protested the lockout at Crown's Pasadena refinery is using Crown to foment revolution.... It was admittedly strange, said Crown spokesman Bruce Hicks, when company officials first learned that Dean Cook, a longtime Crown employee and one of the leaders of the lockout protest, is a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Hicks said other members of the union local also have attended party functions."
But the red-baiting attack did not achieve the divisive effect intended, as workers answered it. B. J. Case, a locked-out worker, wrote in a letter to the Chronicle, "No person's political persuasion caused the lockout and not one of us who are locked out are standing in the way of its end.
"We did not invent the fact that Crown disregards the health and safety of the community and the environment, nor that it routinely discriminates against women and minorities at its Pasadena refinery. On the other hand, Crown did invent the idea that workers sabotaged the refinery."
The workers responded to the lockout by setting up a 24-hour picket line at the refinery seven days a week. The picket line remained in force, uninterrupted, for two years. The unionists were forced to remove their picket shack after Crown bought the land it was sitting on. Workers then went to a daylight picket, which they continued to the end of the lockout.
In the first months of the lockout, workers maintained a large presence around the refinery, but did not actually picket the refinery gates. Union officials feared plant-gate picketing might jeopardize the charges of unfair labor practices their lawyers had filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It was two years into the lockout before the plant-gate picketing began.
The union lawyers filed charges against the company again and again, throughout most of the lockout. With one minor exception, the NLRB always ruled in favor of the company.
The unionists reached out for support in nearby communities and to workers at other refineries and chemical plants. They participated in community festivals and parades, campaigning for solidarity and highlighting the company's disregard for workers' safety and the environment. At one festival, the 1998 Pasadena Strawberry Festival, workers were awarded first prize for "best-decorated booth." The following year, organizers of the event tried to discourage the workers from participating in the festival.
Workers at Crown and their supporters made trips to extend solidarity to other workers in struggle--to Illinois coal miners on strike, Titan Tire strikers and workers at a catfish-processing plant in Mississippi, locked-out Kaiser Aluminum workers in Louisiana and Ohio, and workers at Budweiser in Houston fighting for a contract. Crown workers participated in rallies in Washington organized by farmers fighting for their land and against discrimination.
Unionists leafleted neighborhoods where the Crown bosses lived as well as the corporate headquarters in Baltimore as part of a "corporate campaign" against the company.
They held rallies at the refinery in Pasadena and at Crown headquarters in Maryland. The last major rally, a day-long event held Feb. 5, 1999, at the refinery and at the union hall in Pasadena, marked the three-year anniversary of the lockout. The refinery workers were joined in their rally by workers from around the Houston area, as well as locked-out and striking workers from around the country and a Georgia farmer who is a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, which is fighting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's discriminatory policies.
Breaking the deadlock
For years negotiations had been at near-deadlock. The company could have declared negotiations at an impasse and implemented its contract. This would have forced the workers to come back under the terms in Crown's offer, or forced them to go on strike, at which point the company could have permanently replaced them. That didn't happen.
The negotiations deadlock was broken when those on the company's "hit list"--workers Crown was demanding be fired with no arbitration rights--began offering to resign as a means of removing obstacles to getting the union back in the plant. The company eventually agreed to this, helping pave the way for the remaining items of contention to be resolved.
Crown operated the refinery for five years without a union, but in the end they could not keep the union out. They failed to take away workers' ability to defend their rights, to have a voice on the job. Workers now have an opportunity to win to the union those who have been working in the plant without a union for five years and who will remain in the plant as the union workers return.
By voting to accept the contract, union members have secured the right of workers at Crown to be in the best position to continue this fight.
Dean Cook was locked out by Crown Petroleum in February 1996. Jacquie Henderson is a sewing machine operator in Houston.
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