Tesoro refinery workers stand up to company greed and arrogance

Two years ago, an explosion ripped through the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington killing seven refinery workers. To finance the refinery’s repairs, Tesoro reduced worker and retiree health care benefits and eliminated some benefits for retirees. When bargaining for a new contract with United Steelworkers locals, the company demanded that these benefit cuts and be made permanent and that union members give up their right to bargain for benefits.

Four of six USW locals that represent Tesoro workers have rejected the company’s concession demands, and members of these locals  have authorized a strike if the company refuses to insist that workers give up their right to bargain over benefits.

On May 3, USW members from Tesoro refineries in Anacortes, Los Angeles, Mandan, North Dakota, and Martinez, California attended the Tesoro shareholders’ meeting in San Antonio and presented management with 8,000 letters signed by USW members and supporters demanding that the company save lives and treat its workers fairly by bargaining in good faith.

Outside the shareholders meeting, other union members and supporters marched and rallied to support members inside. “I think that refinery workers have already paid dearly for (the Anacortes) disaster,” said Ryan Heustis, USW unit chair at Tesoro’s Los Angeles refinery in a blog post describing the demonstration, “And I find it outrageous that the company is trying to force us to pay for management’s mistakes.”

Six months after the explosion, Tesoro, an independent oil company based in San Antonio, notified its union workers that the company was unilaterally reducing pension and health care benefits and eliminating retiree life insurance, dental coverage, and medical coverage for all retirees 65 years old or older by 2014.

Greg Goff, Tesoro CEO, whose compensation totaled $8 million last year, admitted to a local bargaining committee that money saved from the cuts would be used to finance the repair of the damaged Anacortes refinery and to honor executive contracts, which prompted Mark Laurance, unit chair at the Anacortes refinery to say, “Management should be paying for its mistakes in process safety and its own perks and compensation, not us.”

When Tesoro imposed its benefit cuts, USW filed an unfair labor practice charge with National Labor Relations Board. That charge is still pending.

When bargaining began over local contracts that were set to expire earlier this year, Tesoro, which reported $546 million in net income last year, demanded that the cuts be made permanent and that the company acquire the right to change benefits at any time during the term of the new contract without consulting the union.

“Tesoro wants to be able to unilaterally change or eliminate the health care, pension and 401(k) plans and vacation policies,” said  Gary Beevers, USW international vice-president, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program. “This is a perfect example of the 1 percent trying to deny the 99 percent their right to bargain and have a say in their workplace.”

During negotiations, Tesoro refused to budge from its concession demands. The contracts for all four locals have expired, and members have voted to authorize a strike, but so far, the locals have not given notice of a strike as required by their contract.

Local leaders, however, have warned Tesoro management and shareholders not to misinterpret their workers’ intentions. “We do not want a strike, and we have been trying to avoid a strike,” said Steve Garey, an Anacortes refinery worker, to the shareholders. “But do not confuse our patience with fear. If we do not achieve a reasonable agreement soon, there will be a strike.”

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