SALT LAKE CITY - The Tesoro Company, whose inattention to safety led to a blast in its Anacortes, Wash., oil refinery that killed seven workers exactly two years ago, is forcing its Steelworkers members at its six U.S. refineries into a confrontation.
The firm's unilateral benefit cuts led Anacortes local members to authorize a strike and prompted leaders of all six USW Tesoro locals to meet Mar. 24-25 in Salt Lake City to plan joint strategy - and to demonstrate at the refinery there.
The firm unilaterally cut benefits at its refineries on Jan. 1, 2011. But a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge ruled on Feb. 7, 2012 that its move broke labor law and the local union contract at the Mandan, N.D. plant. He ordered Tesoro to restore the benefits and go back to the bargaining table.
Tesoro's revocation of benefits also forced NLRB hearings on labor law breaking at the Los Angeles refinery, plus a USW request for binding arbitration at Salt Lake City. USW also represents Tesoro workers in the refineries in Martinez, Calif., and Hawaii. Tesoro not only wants to yank benefits from workers, but it wants the USW locals to waive their bargaining rights on the issue in talks over an upcoming three-year contract.
The issue is particularly sharp at Anacortes due to the deaths of the workers.
USW "believes the company is trying to recoup the cost of the Apr. 2 catastrophe at the expense of their employees' retirement security," a statement from Local 12-591 there said. It noted Tesoro reduced its pension and 401(k) match and eliminated retiree life insurance, dental coverage, and medical care for anyone older than age 65 by 2014.
"We work in a dangerous environment and are exposed to all sorts of chemicals," said Anacortes local unit chair Mark Laurance. "We work hard for this company and ensure it is profitable. The least Tesoro could do is ensure we have a secure retirement where we can have benefits that enable us to take care of ourselves after a lifetime of exposure to toxic substances."
Local 12-591 also proposed safety improvements at Anacortes after the 2010 explosion and blast, he said, but has gotten no response.
Meanwhile, USW Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads its oil-chemical-atomic workers sector, urged Tesoro shareholders to pressure management to bargain in good faith and back off the benefit cuts. He wrote shareholders on Mar. 20 that USW will bargain in good faith, "and hopes for a fair and equitable settlement." But Tesoro's pattern of labor law breaking undermines bargaining and "may lead to a strike at one or more USW-represented Tesoro locations," his letter warned.
Photo: Smoke billows from the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Calif. during a flare-up in Nov. 2010. Karl Mondon/AP