Houston, we have a problem: Strike at major oil refineries

HOUSTON – In the largest strike since 1980, oil workers who are members of USW District 13 locals (Locals 13-1 and Local 13-227) are no longer on the job on the Houston Channel, which is the largest petrochemical complex in the world. The strike kicked off Feb. 1.

Combined, the three refineries impacted by the first strike actions have a total capacity of 700,000 barrels per day.  This represents 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity. The Houston Ship channel strikes are part of a national strike by oil workers that includes nine refineries and chemical plants in California, Kentucky, Texas, and Washington.

The three plants impacted by the strike in Houston include Shell Oil Refinery and Chemical Plant, Lyondell Basell Refinery, and Marathon (refinery and cogeneration facility). A total of 2,200 striking workers are in District 13 and a total of 5,000 in the greater Houston area. The remaining refineries and oil facilities are operating under a rolling 24-hour contract extension.

The USW said in a statement that it “represents 850,000 men and women employed in metals, mining, pulp and paper, rubber, chemicals, glass, auto supply, and energy-producing industries, along with a growing number of workers in public sector and service occupations. Union members also account for 64 percent of the country’s oil refining capacity, and more locations could soon join the strike if necessary.” 

The union is under attack in Texas, with USW members locked out at the Sherwin Alumina plant in Corpus Christi and the ASARCO facility in Amarillo. The attack on the union is occurring while the industry made record profits.  Royal Dutch Shell announced earnings of $19 billion in 2014. LyondellBasell had record profits of 7.1 billion (EBITD) in 2014, cash generation of $6.0 billion. These profits in large part went to reward stock holders rather than repairs, stock repurchases over worker safety, to the tune of $7.2 billion in dividends. This largesse extended to a jump in compensation for their corporate officers.

The USW oil workers plan a noon rally at Shell headquarters in downtown Houston (1 Shell Plaza at 901 Louisiana) on Friday, Feb. 6 to “show management that union workers are united in their drive for a fair contract that improves safety throughout the industry.”

The union also plans a National Day of Action at 65 oil refineries and steel workers at almost 200 other facilities across the country, including oil terminals, pipelines, petrochemical plans, will also participate in solidarity actions.  The actions will take place on Saturday, Feb. 7. The union is conducting food drives, donations, gift cards, pass the bucket at work, adopt-a-family, volunteers to picket at a sister plant and supporting the day of action.

The workers have a number of grievances. One is the “on-call system.” They report that they are asked to be on call when the plants anticipate possibly being short-handed. This means that, supplied with pagers, workers may be alerted anywhere they happen to be and told to come in even during what is supposed to be their off time.  Alternatively, they may be told to check in on certain days to see if they are needed. Even if they are cleared for the day, however, the on-call system prevents them from commiting in advance to social and/or family plans.

Moreover, there is an “attendance program” that penalizes workers for not fulfilling their on-call duty. Each day they miss, they accumulate hours and points against them, and do not get a clean slate until a year from each missed day, which makes it very easy for workers to be plagued, at any given time, with “points against them,” with little or no hope of working them off unless they can go for years and years with no missed days. It does not even matter if the reasons for the missed days are legitimate and unavoidable by all reasonable judgement.

Despite this understandable concern, Tom Conway, vice president with USW International, states that neither the on-call system nor wages are emphasized in the oil strikes. The primary concern is safe staffing levels.

He explained, “We have people who are working eight, twelve, fourteen, sixteen continuous days without a day off on 12 hour shifts. And people are stressed with an amazing amount of overtime, fatigue, and sleep deprivations. It is dangerous. It’s a dangerous way to run an operation like a fuel refinery.”

The union also brings attention to the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks, and explosions that threaten local communities. Flagrant contracting out and replacement of qualified and experienced union workers, impacts health and safety on the job. 

In an effort to reduce dependence on USW workers, plants have increasingly relied on contract labor from companies like The Wood Group, which provide labor on a temporary basis, reducing company obligations to workers. Because of the temporary nature of job placements, contract labor must frequently be taught to operate refinery equipment and several veteran operators expressed concern about the lack of safety standards from contract labor.

One worker on strike said, “the under-skilled labor they get to work for very little money can cause a lot of problems. It’s a volatile job. If people don’t know what they’re doing, and they turn a wrong valve, well, that’s it. I mean, that’s how that BP plant blew up. Since we’ve been gone, just in the past week, we’ve seen four ambulances leave here, carrying people out. We don’t know what the particular injuries were, but we’ve seen the ambulances leaving. It’s real hush-hush.”

The safety record of Texas industry is abysmal. EHS Today reports that nearly 5,000 workers die each year as a result of fatal occupational injuries in Texas. These preventable deaths devastate families and workplaces.

Four workers were killed in a crane collapse at the LyondellBasell refinery in Pasadena, Texas in 2008.

The aforementioned worker said he also saw someone get burned very recently, adding that, “most of the what happens is with contractors. At my plant, there are about 450 contractors. Unfortunately, they are in a position of having to do things in a hurry because their bosses are pushing them, and they have to jump on command. They have a lot of accidents. They are inexperienced. This [plant] might go up any minute [because of that]. The public needs to know that we are coming to work dealing with a time-bomb every day. That’s what this place is; that’s the nature of the business.”

One of the refineries under labor strike is Marathon’s Galveston Bay Refinery, formerly owned by British Petroleum (BP). The BP refinery had a large explosion that killed 15 workers. The Texas City refinery is the third largest refinery in the U.S. and is located at the world’s biggest petrochemical complex. An investigation by the People’s World, after the 2005 explosion, confirmed that safety procedures and practices had deteriorated after OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Board inspectors left the refinery and after the facility was sold by BP to Marathon Oil. This refinery reported a leak to regulators on Wednesday, Feb. 4.

In April 2005, OSHA cited the BP Texas City refinery and listed the BP Texas City refinery as a subject facility under its Enhanced Enforcement Program for Employers Who Are Indifferent to Their Obligations Under the OSH Act.

According to a recent Dallas Morning News investigative report, “Houston has the worst record in Texas, and Texas has the worst record in the nation when it comes to workplace fatalities or catastrophes.”

Photo: Jane Nguyen/PW


Álvaro Rodriguez
Álvaro Rodriguez

Álvaro Rodriguez is a long-time labor and community activist. He writes from Texas.