Oil workers strike for safe refineries continues at some locations

Striking oil workers on March 23 held a candlelight vigil to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the BP oil refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers.

On the same day, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued statements saying that ten years after the deadly explosion, companies that own the refineries aren’t doing enough to make refineries safe.

While the United Steelworkers (USW) and Shell Oil reached an agreement on a National Oil Bargaining Agreement, some oil companies have balked at agreeing to it and others have not been able to reach an agreement with their local unions on local issues.

As a result, the oil workers strike for safe refineries continues at five refineries.

The Marathon Oil refinery in Texas City is one of the refineries where workers are still on strike.

Marathon now owns the refinery where the century’s deadliest refinery explosion happened in 2005. At the time, the refinery was owned and operated by BP.

On Monday night, 150 striking Marathon workers marched from their union hall to the refinery. When they arrived, the names of the workers killed in the explosion were read out loud, and as each one was read, a cross with the worker’s name was planted in the ground.

The crosses were a memorial to the dead and a reminder to all about the dangerous conditions inside the refinery.

When the vigil ended, they left the crosses behind.

Before dawn the next morning, Marathon had the crosses removed.

The removal of the crosses by Marathon is symbolic.

Marathon Oil “is attempting to roll back many of the health and safety improvements that were implemented in the aftermath of the explosion,” reads a statement by USW Local 13-1, the Marathon workers’ union. “Marathon management has also failed to follow the rest of the oil refining industry in agreeing to processes to address worker fatigue and training for workers performing routine maintenance.”

Marathon workers in Catlettsburg, Kentucky also remain on strike.

Dave Martin, vice president of USW Local 8-719 in Catlettsburg told WOWK TV News that safety issues remain the sticking point to reaching an agreement with the company.

One of the safety issues on which the two remain far apart is the use of temporary contract workers, who have limited safety training.

“We have a provision in our contract if they lay off people, they can’t contract work out,” Martin said. “They want to do that and that’s one of the main parts of our contract.”

In addition to the two Marathon refineries, the Lyondell Basell refinery in Pasadena, Texas, the Husky Energy/BP refinery in Toledo, Ohio, and the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana remain on strike.

BP, which owns a 50 percent share in the Husky refinery in Toledo, wants to restrict their workers’ ability to bargain over local issues, including safety issues.

BP told the Chicago Tribune that it wants more “flexibility” to implement changes during the life of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Dave Danko, president of USW Local 7-1, the Whiting BP workers’ union, said that BP is taking a page out of Wisconsin Governor’s Scott Walker playbook by trying to curtail its workers collective bargaining rights.

BP’s attempt to reduce worker participation in ensuring refinery safety by limiting collective bargaining rights on local issues appears to contradict recommendations made by CSB for improving refinery safety.

In its reports on the BP explosion and two subsequent serious incidents at other refineries, CSB recommended more worker and union participation in safety decisions, not less as BP is proposing.

In its report on the Texas City explosion, CSB urged the local union to “work with BP to establish a joint program that promotes reporting, investigating, and analyzing incidents, near-misses, process upsets, and major plant hazards without fear of retaliation.”

In its report on a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers, CSB recommended “an increased role for workers in management of process safety” and the formation of safety committees composed equally of union members and management that have real authority to deal with safety problems.

In its report on a 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California that injured four workers and sent thousands of nearby residents to hospitals seeking treatment for breathing problems, CSB recommended that workers be allowed to stop work when they spotted safety hazards without fear of company retaliation.

On the tenth anniversary of the BP explosion, CSB said that there still exists a lax safety culture at US refineries. To improve refinery safety, CSB is recommending “more robust regulatory oversight with greater worker involvement and public participation.”

OSHA also issued a statement on the tenth anniversary of the BP explosion. According to Jordan Barab, writing on the US Department of Labor blog, the explosions and fires that followed the BP explosion were preventable and “each repeated a lesson that the industry should have already learned.”

Despite the rhetoric of oil companies like BP and Marathon, refinery safety remains problematic, which is why the strikes continue.

The title of a flyer announcing USW Local 13’s March 23 candlelight vigil at the Marathon refinery gate sums up the attitude of the strikers. “Mourn the Dead–Fight Like Hell for the Living,” it reads.

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