Strike for safety at US oil refineries expands

Workers at two BP work sites in Indiana and Ohio have  joined the national oil workers strike, the first nationwide strike against Big Oil since 1980.

Members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-1 at The BP  refinery in Whiting, Indiana and members of USW Local 346-3 at the BP plant in Toledo, Ohio walked off the job 24 hours after the USW issued a strike notice to BP, the world’s sixth largest oil company.

The USW members in Indiana and Ohio joined 3,650 other USW members on strike at nine other Big Oil work sites in Texas, California, Kentucky, and Washington. USW represents members at 65 oil refineries and related facilities in the US.

The strike began on February 1 after negotiations on a new national oil bargaining agreement failed to produce what the union calls a fair agreement–one that includes enforceable contract language that improves safety at the nation’s oil refineries.

“We are absolutely committed to negotiating a fair contract that improves safety conditions throughout the industry,” said Leo Gerard, USW international president. “Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them.”

“Our workers need enforceable contract language on their issues that holds the industry accountable,” added Tom Conway,  USW international vice president of administration.

USW has been bargaining with Shell, which is representing Big Oil in the national bargaining agreement negotiations. The agreement negotiated with Shell will set the pattern for a national agreement. The current national agreement expired on January 31.

Shell made its sixth offer to the union on February 5 and for the sixth time USW negotiators rejected the company’s offer.

Gary Beevers, USW international vice president, who has been leading the union negotiating team, said that Shell isn’t taking union members’ concerns seriously.

“Little progress has been made on our members’ central issues concerning health and safety, fatigue, inadequate staffing levels that differ from what is shown on paper, contracting out of daily maintenance jobs, high out-of-pocket and health care costs,” said Beevers. “In addition, Shell has failed to accept the ‘no-retrogression’ language that refers to acceptance of previous agreements with the industry.”

“We will not relinquish 50 years of progress in (National Oil Bargaining Program) bargaining,” he added.

Oil refining is dangerous work and what happens at refineries affects both workers and nearby residents.

For example, in 2005 an explosion at a Texas City, Texas refinery, which at the time was owned by BP, killed 15 workers, injured 170 more, and caused noxious smoke to be released into the atmosphere. Residents at the time were instructed by local authorities to stay indoors and close and seal windows.

Subsequent investigations blamed the explosion on company cost cutting measures.

Despite the dangers, oil companies continue to look for ways to cut cost even though doing so may make the refineries less safe.

One way that they are cutting costs, according to the union, is by under staffing their refineries.

Under staffing results in companies scheduling excessive overtime to maintain production.

Some workers welcome the extra overtime because they need the money to meet expenses, but too much work causes fatigue, and according to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), “Fatigue is an unsafe condition in the workplace.”

ACOEM says that fatigue caused by long work hours can be mitigated by adequate rest periods, but adequate rest is hard to come by in most oil refineries.

Production workers generally work 12-hour shifts, sometimes three days a week and sometimes four days a week.

Long breaks between long shifts are supposed to refresh workers and keep them alert, but because of short staffing, oil workers are often called in on their days off.

In other instances, they work more than 12 hour days to keep production flowing.

Workers also rotate between day and night shifts, which, studies have shown increases fatigue by interrupting sleep patterns.

When oil workers signed on to work in refineries, they knew that dangerous work and long hours were part of the job, but according to Conway those conditions are getting out of hand.

“We have people who are working twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen continuous days without a day off on 12 hour shifts,” said Conway. “And people are stressed with an amazing amount of overtime and fatigue and sleep deprivation. It’s dangerous. It’s a dangerous way to run an operation like a fuel refinery.”

What oil workers are asking for in the new collective bargaining agreement is input into how their work is structured, so that fatigue can be reduced and their workplace can be made safer. They also want, safer staffing levels, more of a voice when it comes to safety decisions on the job, and less outsourcing of work to inexperienced contractors.

So far, the oil companies in general and Shell in particular have been unwilling to give the workers the voice they want to make their jobs safe.

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One thought on “Strike for safety at US oil refineries expands

  1. Pingback: Introducing Your Newest Anti-Worker Governor, Bruce Rauner: Winners and Losers of the Week | Unions United Way

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