Oil workers on strike for “safe refineries, secure jobs, and healthy communities”

US Oil workers on February 1 went on strike after oil company negotiators walked out of negotiations for a new three-year national collective bargaining agreement that will set the pattern for worker wages, benefits, and working conditions in the oil refining business.

For now, nine work sites that produce about 10 percent of the nation’s petroleum products are affected, but the strike could spread to all 65 refineries and related facilities covered by the national agreement.

“With no other options, nine units have been called out on strike,” said a posting on the Oil Workers Facebook page. “We’re ready to fight back until we can win safe refineries, secure jobs, and healthy communities.”

Companies affected by the strike are

  • Shell (two facilities in Deer Park, Texas)
  • Marathon (two refineries in Texas, City, Texas and Catlettsburg Kentucky and its Houston Green Cogenertion facility in Texas City)
  • Tesoro, (three refineries in Anacortes, Washington, Martinez, California, and Carson, California) and
  • LyondellBissell (Houston)

The facilities not on strike continue to operate under a 24-hour rolling contract extension, which means that their workers could go on strike after the union issues a 24 strike notice.

The oil workers belong to the United Steelworkers (USW). USW’s National Oil Bargaining Team had been negotiating a new pattern setting collective bargaining agreement with Shell. The current national oil agreement expired January 31.

During the bargaining process, Shell made five contract offers that union negotiators called insulting and rejected.

On the eve of the contract deadline, Shell refused to consider the union’s latest counter proposal and left the negotiations.

The union’s position is that oil companies have been and will continue to be extremely profitable enterprises, and workers deserve a contract that directs some of the wealth that they create back to them in the form of better pay and a safer work environment.

“The oil companies do not want to work with us to improve the workplace and safety at oil refineries and facilities,” said Tom Conway, USW international vice president of administration. “This industry is the richest in the world and can afford to make the changes we offered in bargaining. The problem is that oil companies are too greedy to make a positive change in the workplace and they continue to value production and profit over health and safety, workers, and the community.”

The USW says that a fair contract would include:

  • Fair wage increases for each year of the contract–Big Oil CEOs were paid $95.8 million in compensation in 2012, but they don’t do the dangerous and demanding work it takes to turn oil into profitable consumer products. Oil workers are the ones who do this work, and they want a raise that reflects the importance of their hazardous work.
  • Reduced worker health care costs–Big Oil has been shifting health care costs to its workers, which effectively lowers their pay. Oil workers want to shift the cost back to the companies that consistently report billions of dollars in profit.
  • Reduced outsourcing–As oil workers retire, more of their work is being done by outsourcing contractors. The over reliance on inexperienced contractors makes refineries more dangerous.
  • Safer jobs and communities–Oil workers work long hours, which causes fatigue. Fatigue creates safety problems. The union wants companies to work with the union to reduce excessive work and determine safe staffing levels, so that there are enough workers at the plant to keep them operating safely.

The union also wants oil companies to take work safety more seriously.

In the last few years, there have been a number of safety breakdowns at refineries that have put the health and safety of workers and residents of nearby communities at risk.

A 2010 explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington killed seven workers. The US Chemical Safety Board found that the company, “repeatedly failed to ensure that (process) hazards were controlled and that the number of workers exposed to these hazards was minimized.”

A 2012 leak at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California released toxic vapors sending workers to the hospital and endangering the lives of nearby residents. The Chemical Safety Board found that Chevron ignored pipe damage that caused the leak and did not have proper safety protocols in place.

A 2012 explosion at the Chevron refinery in Martinez, California sent a thick cloud of noxious smoke into the atmosphere causing thousands of nearby residents to seek medical treatment. According to a lawsuit filed by residents, the explosion was caused by Chevron’s “despicable, intentional, reckless and grossly negligent, and probably criminal conduct.”

The oil workers want the new collective bargaining agreement to address the “unsafe staffing levels; (the) dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; (and) the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities,” said Lynne Hancock, the USW spokesperson to the Houston Chronicle.

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