Oil industry obstinance on safety forces steelworkers to strike

PITTSBURGH, Pa. (PAI) – Oil industry obstinance, especially its refusal to even discuss worker safety issues, forced tens of thousands of Steelworkers to strike at midnight on Feb. 1.

Workers had to walk out of refineries in Houston, Texas City and Deer Park, Texas, Anacortes, Wash., and Martinez and Carson, Calif. And while USW had bargained with Shell, as the designated lead firm for a nationwide “pattern contract,” the workers had to strike several other firms’ refineries, too, to indicate that all of oil’s “Seven Sisters” were involved.

The People’s World has reporters on the scene at the refinery near Houston and is interviewing some of the striking workers. That report will be posted here as soon as it is available.

At remaining refineries, oil workers toiled under rolling 24-hour contract extensions, USW said. USW represents approximately 64 percent of U.S. refinery workers.

“Oil workers labor in a very dangerous environment, with much of it beyond their control, and are subjected to hazardous chemicals and other cancer-causing substances,” says Steelworkers Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s oil and chemical workers’ sector, and its bargaining team.

But the highly profitable companies refuse to spend needed money to make their workers safe, he adds. Indeed, the firms’ aim in the talks was not safety, but to cut the workers’ wages, Beevers said.

“We told Shell we were willing to continue bargaining for a fair agreement that would benefit the workers and the industry, but they just refused to return to the table,” said Beevers, in announcing the strike was on.

Shell retorted it made five contract offers, but they did not cover safety issues, so USW members rejected all of them. In their National Oil Bargaining Conference last year, before the talks started, the union’s delegates voted to make safety the top issue.

“This work stoppage is about onerous overtime, unsafe staffing levels, dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore, the daily fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it,” Beevers explained.

He also said the oil industry refuses to provide “opportunities for workers in the trade crafts” while imposing “flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire.”

The talks are important not just for the oil workers whom USW represents, but for the nation. With increasing drilling and transportation of oil, the U.S. has now overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer, and U.S. reliance on imports, as a percentage of total oil use – in everything from gasoline to heating fuel to jet fuel to plastics – has declined to its lowest point in decades.

But the price of crude oil has also dropped by half and the Saudis and other producers are building refineries to compete with U.S. refineries for the most-valuable light crude, Beevers told the paper.

All this makes the oil talks the most-crucial in years, he adds. And USW members turned out in force for a National Day of Action on the oil talks on Jan. 28, three days before the old contract ended. Further mobilization is continuing.

“The companies do not want to work with us to improve the workplace and safety at oil refineries and facilities,” said USW Vice President of Administration Tom Conway, who joined Beevers at the national bargaining table. “This industry is the richest in the world and can afford to make the changes we offered.

“The oil companies are too greedy to make a positive change in the workplace and they continue to value production and profit over health and safety, workers and the community. When the industry comes to its senses, we are more than willing to meet them at the table and negotiate a fair pattern agreement that will help everyone,” Conway added.

Photo: Representatives from Deer Park United Steelworkers Local 13-1 hold picket signs outside the Shell Deer Park Refinery as the Union calls for strikes against the Shell refinery and chemical plants in Deer Park, Texas, on Sunday.  |  AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).