The United Steelworkers (USW) announced on March 12 that the union and Shell Oil Company have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that will set the pattern for wages, benefits, and safety improvements at oil refineries where USW members work.
USW represents 30,000 oil workers at 65 refineries and related facilities in the US.
About 7,000 oil workers at 15 oil company plants have been on strike since February 1. The union said that the strike will continue until union members at the struck facilities have a chance to review the agreement and ratify it.
USW said that the tentative agreement meets its bargaining goals.
One of those goals was to improve safety at US oil refineries where during the last five years, 27 workers have died on the job and hundreds have been injured.
In praising the new tentative agreement, Leo Gerard, USW international president, said that the solidarity of the strikers had won “vast improvements in safety and staffing.”
Details about these improvements have not been made public, but according to one union official, the union will now have a voice in setting staffing levels and ensuring that workers are adequately trained.
“The new agreement calls for joint review on the local level of future, craft worker staffing needs,” said Tom Conway, USW vice president. “Included are hiring plans to be developed in conjunction with recruitment and training programs.”
Staffing levels, adequate training, and refinery safety are all intertwined.
In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers and injured 180 more. The US Chemical Safety Board blamed the explosion on worker fatigue caused by inadequate staffing levels and a lack of effective training.
In 2013, a fire at an Exxon Mobile facility in Beaumont, Texas killed two and injured ten when a temporary worker with little training used a torch to cut away a stuck bolt on a vessel filled with volatile hydrocarbons.
Oil companies, instead of hiring enough permanent staff to meet production goals have been relying, instead, on excessive overtime, which leads to excessive fatigue.
Brent Petit, president of USW Local 13-750, whose members work in Shell facilities in Norco and Convent, Louisiana, told the St. Charles Herald Guide that it is not uncommon for refinery workers to work between 500 and 1,000 hours of overtime a year, and they often work 60 or more a week.
Oil companies also are not replacing experienced workers who retire or quit; instead, the companies are using temporary workers, and as the fire that took two lives in Beaumont showed, these temporary workers often don’t receive proper training.
Whether the new tentative agreement actually improves safety will depend largely on whether workers can continue to muster the kind of solidarity that they showed during the strike.
Although Shell did not openly encourage workers to break the strike, it did try to weaken the union by sowing discontent. For example, in a letter to strikers, the company tried to undermine the union by claiming that the company was negotiating in good faith on safety issues.
But the tactic didn’t work.
Reuters reports that at the Shell facilities in Deer Park, Texas fewer than 10 percent of the strikers returned to work and many of those who did so were not union members to begin with.
The Lake Charles Herald Guide reported that at the Shell facilities in Louisiana even a lower percentage of strikers left the picket lines and returned to work.
Even though the two sides have reached a tentative agreement, the strike won’t be over until union members ratify the agreement.
Locals that are on strike will also have a chance to bargain on local issues, and members will have a chance to sign off on any local issues that might be included in the agreement.
According to USW, employers at refineries that weren’t on strike will likely offer the same terms that are in the tentative agreement with Shell, and workers at these refineries will have a chance to bargain on local issues as well. When the bargaining is complete, then workers at the refineries not on strike will vote on the new contract.