Oil workers’ strike for safe work and communities grows

Workers at four more oil plants have joined the US oil worker strike for safer work and safer communities.

The new strike sites include the Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, the largest refinery in the US, and three other facilities: two Motiva refineries in Convent, Louisiana and Norco, Louisiana, and Shell Chemical in Norco.

Motiva is a joint venture between Shell and Saudi Refining, a subsidiary of Saudi Aramco.

Shell is the company representing Big Oil in its contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers (USW), whose members include 30,000 US oil workers.

When an agreement is reached, it will establish a pattern on wages, benefits, and safety conditions for all refinery work covered by collective bargaining agreements with USW.

“We’re committed to reaching a settlement that works for both parties,” said Tom Conway, USW vice president. “But inadequate staffing levels, worker fatigue, and other important safety issues must be addressed (by the company).”

According to a USW message to members, Shell has ignored the union’s proposals to reduce workplace fatigue, a well-documented safety hazard.

Shell has also ignored union proposals that would give workers more control over protecting their safety and the safety of those living in nearby communities, and it continues to insists on relying on ill-trained, temporary contractors to perform dangerous maintenance work.

Safety is the union’s major concern in these negotiations because refineries are a dangerous place to work. Toxic and reactive chemicals are combined at extreme temperatures and high pressure. Mistakes or faulty equipment, such as leaking pipes, can lead to deadly explosions or vapor leaks.

In the past seven years, 27 oil workers have died on the job as a result of safety lapses.

In the past eight years, 349 fires have been reported at US oil refineries and related facilities.

At a recent rally in Texas City, Texas, Leslie Dillon, the wife of a striking oil worker held up a homemade sign that summed what the strike is all about. “I would rather see him (Dillon’s husband) on the picket line than dead,” read Dillon’s sign.

A February 18 explosion at an Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, California refinery  demonstrates how dangerous oil refinery work can be for workers and for those who live nearby.

The explosion injured four workers and spewed chemicals and potentially harmful dust into the atmosphere.

The Torrance Daily Breeze reports that when the explosion took place, nearby residents said they felt the ground shake. After the explosion, city officials instructed children at 12 nearby schools and nearby residents to stay indoors.

At a town hall meeting on February 20, about 200 residents confronted Exxon Mobil about its response to the explosion and asked what chemicals had been released into the atmosphere. The company declined to answer.

Residents also complained that Exxon Mobil did not sound a refinery siren that would have warned them to go inside because dangerous vapors may have been released into the air.

“I’ve counted on that warning for 53 years,” said resident Jean Severance, a nearby resident to the Torrance Daily Breeze. “What happened? If we had heard that siren, we would have stayed inside.”

The Torrance explosion is the second US refinery explosion in 2015.

Another explosion and fire took place in January at the Husky Energy refinery in Lima, Ohio.

After the Torrance explosion, Gary Beevers, USW vice president, who is leading the USW national oil bargaining team, reiterated that the striking oil workers are fighting for improved safety measures that will protect workers and residents of nearby communities.

“We believe that improved safety measures (at refineries) can significantly reduce explosions and fires at these dangerous facilities,” said Beevers.

The expansion of the oil workers strike means that 6,600 workers at 15 refineries and related facilities are now on strike.

The latest expansion of the strike for safety came after Shell made its seventh contract offer, which the USW rejected for the seventh time.

“The new offer fails to improve safety in an enforceable way,” said the USW in a statement after it rejected the company’s offer.

The oil workers’ strike is now entering its fourth week.

To help oil workers meet expenses during the strike, USW is asking supporters to contribute to the workers’ Unfair Labor Practices Strike and Defense Fund.

“USW oil workers have forced into an unfair labor practices strike,” reads a statement by the union. “The workers are fighting to secure fair contracts that will protect the health and safety of workers and communities. Your donations will help support these brave workers and their families.”

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