PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The United Steelworkers (USW) announced today that it has reached a tentative agreement on a new four-year contract with Shell Oil as a pattern agreement for the rest of the industry. The agreement accomplishes the major goals as directed by the USW’s oil conference in October of last year, and has been approved by union’s lead negotiators and National Oil Bargaining Policy (NOBP) Committee.
Workers have been striking over safety issues at oil refineries across the country since last month in the first major strike against that industry in decades. The picket lines have drawn support from communities and other unions.
“We salute the solidarity exhibited by our membership,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. “There was no way we would have won vast improvements in safety and staffing without it.”
That solidarity forced the refinery workers to strike at 11:59 pm on Jan. 31, when their prior contract expired. Since Shell refused to budge – until now – on safety issues, the strike spread to at least a dozen refineries in California, Ohio, Indiana, Texas and elsewhere. The union represents some two-thirds of the nation’s oil refinery workers.
The union made safety improvements its top goal in the talks, after at least a decade of weekly refinery fires, explosions and related disasters. The pact was reached on the eve of the 10th anniversary of one of the worst of the blasts, the March 23, 2005 explosion and fire – due to lack of safety measures – at what was then the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas. That blast killed 15 workers and injured 180 other people.
And on the anniversary, the former Texas local judge who handled 4,016 damage claims from survivors and families wrote an op-ed for the local paper in the Galveston area describing the families’ misery and backing the strike.
Safety issues were central to the negotiations, and the proposed agreement calls for the immediate review of staffing and workload assessments, with USW safety personnel involved at every facility. Daily maintenance and repair work in the plants was another critical issue that, too, was addressed.
“The new agreement calls for joint review on the local level of future, craft worker staffing- needs,” said USW International Vice President Tom Conway. “Included are hiring plans to be developed in conjunction with recruitment and training programs.”
The tentative agreement calls for yearly wages increases as well as maintaining the current health care plan cost-sharing ratio.
“Preserving “retrogression” clauses in our agreements was also an objective established by our policy conference and we accomplished that, too,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who oversees the union’s oil sector. “There was no way we could turn our backs to the accomplishments of prior contract negotiations.”
The next step in the bargaining process is for the company to put the terms of the settlement agreement on all of the Shell and Motiva bargaining tables. Our expectation is that other employers will offer the same terms at their local bargaining tables.
The local unions will then review the employers’ proposals with Vice President Beevers. Approved settlement agreements are then submitted to the local membership for explanation and ratification votes.
The USW represents 850,000 workers in North America employed among industries that include metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, plus the service and public sectors. For more information: http://www.usw.org
Photo: Oil workers on strike in Houston, Feb. 2015. | Jane Nguyen/PW