|Workers Feb. 3 picket office of LyondellBasell, owner of one of refineries in national strike.|
The union represents 30,000 members at 230 refineries, oil terminals, pipelines and petrochemical plants. The union-organized refineries produce 64 percent of oil in the U.S. The refineries not on strike are operating under a day-to-day contract extension. All but one of the struck refineries are being operated by management and in some cases strikebreaking contractors.
Safety is a central issue in the dispute.
“The company wants to take away union safety representatives and replace them with people of their choice,” pipefitter Jimmy Bear told the Militant at the picket in front of Marathon’s Texas City refinery Feb. 1. Workers picketing at LyondellBasell in Houston said the company wants to increase their already costly health insurance. Others pointed out that the company wants to substantially reduce overtime pay when they work their off days.
Hundreds came to the union headquarters in Texas City the morning the strike started to sign up for picket duty. Days before the walkout, hundreds of oil workers joined protests in front of refineries.
“We’re trying to keep our wages up,” Joshua Lege, who works at the LyondellBasell refinery in Houston, told the Militant. He was helping lead chants at the Jan. 28 rally in front of the plant. “We’re trying to hold the line. The cost of everything is going up. With the loss of benefits and pensions, who can afford to retire?”
“This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities,” said Steelworkers International Vice President Gary Beevers, head of the union’s Oil Bargaining council, in a Feb. 1 statement.
The strike comes as oil prices have plunged and layoffs have risen. Baker-Hughes, an oil field service company, announced it was laying off 7,000 workers.
Even with the fall in oil prices, Royal Dutch Shell, the lead employer in talks with the union, announced 2014 profits of $14.87 billion Jan. 30.
As the shutdown winds down, members of the union will report for picketing assignments.
Several dozen oil refinery workers rallied with community organizations Jan. 28 at City Hall in nearby Richmond as the Jan. 31 contract expiration drew near. Handmade signs called for strengthening the right of workers to shut down unsafe operations. “We’re the ones out there working,” Ron Stevens, a Chevron refinery worker, told the Militant. “We’re the ones who know what’s going on in the plant.”
The rally took place right before a well-attended U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board hearing to discuss the board’s report on the August 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery.
Nineteen operators, maintenance workers and management personnel barely escaped death or serious injury when a massive hydrocarbon vapor cloud ignited. Some 15,000 residents sought medical treatment after smoke drifted for miles over working-class areas.
Chevron management, the report concludes, repeatedly postponed inspection and replacement of the section of piping that ruptured, spewing 640-degree Fahrenheit gas into the atmosphere. The piping had been in service since 1976 and was severely deteriorated. When the leak was discovered refinery workers urged that the unit be shut down, but were overruled by management, the Chemical Safety Board found.
Chevron claims that its “Stop Work Authority” establishes that any individual can take the responsibility and authority to stop work “when an unsafe condition or act could result in an undesirable event.” But the report says that “fear of reprisal for stopping the job” intimidates workers from doing so.
“When our members attempt to exercise their ‘Stop Work Authority’ they are second-guessed and pressured not to use it,” Local 5 Secretary-Treasurer Jim Payne said at the hearing.
“Neither laws, nor regulatory agencies, nor other governmental bodies will stop these deaths and injuries. None of them will stand against the financial and political might of the oil giants,” retired Local 5 member Jerry Freiwirth said. “The only real guarantor of safety is the workers ourselves and our unions.”
The next day 75 workers rallied in front of the Shell refinery demanding better health care, wages and safety protections in the contract. A big local issue is the increase of forced overtime and unpaid standby time.
“Shell doesn’t pay us one penny for the time we’re on standby. And since they don’t adequately staff the operating units, the forced overtime gets worse and worse,” Laura Sinclair, an operator in Shell’s Cat Cracker unit, told the Militant. “If they had to pay us for our standby time, maybe that would force the company to hire more operators.”
On the Picket Line
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