Oil workers strike for their lives

February 5, 2015

Elizabeth Schulte reports on a walkout by thousands of oil refinery workers over safety.

IN APRIL 2010, Anacortes, Washington, was the site of one of the worst petroleum refinery explosions in the last decade. The shock wave was so great that residents across Fidalgo Bay could feel it, and the fire so intense that it burned for more than three hours. Seven workers were killed at the Tesoro plant.

Today, Anacortes is the site of a strike by members of United Steelworkers (USW)--part of a walkout of 3,800 oil workers across the country that represents the union's biggest action since 1980.

"Our local union has lost 14 members in 16 years," USW Local 12-591 President Steve Garey told the Seattle Stranger. "Quite frankly, we're tired of our coworkers being killed and being subjected to this risk."

Negotiations began on January 21 for a contract that would affect some 30,000 oil workers at more than 200 refineries across the country. Since that time, the union has rejected five offers from Shell, calling the company's offers "insulting." USW called workers to the picket line on February 1 at nine plants in California, Washington, Texas and Kentucky.

Oil workers represented by the USW take to the picket line
Oil workers represented by the USW take to the picket line

The USW is targeting refineries run by Tesoro, ExxonMobil, Marathon and LyondellBasell, with the possibility that the walkout could expand to more plants. The remaining refineries, pipelines, chemical plants and oil terminals are under a rolling, 24-hour contract extension, which extends existing contracts a day at a time until an agreement is reached or the extension is called off.

SAFE WORKING conditions are a main issue--workers describe long hours and chronic understaffing.

Melissa Bailey has worked almost 15 years at the Tesoro plant in Carson, California, where about 800 workers are on strike. "I've worked 19 days in a row, 12 to 14 hours a day," Bailey told Al Jazeera English. "You're exhausted. You push through, but it takes a toll on family life."

Union members said that the Carson plant was being run by managers while the workers were on strike--which is a big reason for concern, considering that it takes years to acquire the skills necessary to do these dangerous jobs.

One main contract issue for union members is that management isn't hiring and training more workers and is forcing dangerous hours on current employees in order to avoid paying overtime. With low staffing levels, an already dangerous job under the best circumstances is life threatening--to workers in the refineries and those who live in the shadows of the refineries.

Refinery workers deal with equipment that runs at extremely high temperatures and under high pressures--they also work with explosive and cancer-causing compounds. Fires, leaks and explosions are all too common--and the companies responsible for this all-too-commonly go unpunished.

An August 2012 fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, lasted for five hours and sent plumes of smoke up to 4,000 feet into the air. Thousands of pounds of chemicals were released, and a reported 5,700 people sought medical attention for eye irritation and respiratory problems. This was the refinery's third major accident in 12 years.

Contracting out work is also a big issue for striking workers, who say management hands out union work to nonunion employees who aren't adequately trained. Workers are also asking for a 6 percent raise over the three-year contract and an end to mandatory employee contributions to their health insurance.

The companies are pleading poverty, citing the fall in oil prices. The price drop has hurt "upstream" drillers and pumpers of oil, but independent refiners have actually been making hefty profits, thanks to cheap prices for U.S. crudes that they turn into gasoline and diesel. As a USW strike statement put it:

The oil industry is the richest in the world, but its greed cripples any attempt to make meaningful changes through collective bargaining. Bigger profits are more important to them than the concerns of their workforce.

Your bargaining team is prepared to return to the table and negotiate a fair agreement for both parties, but the industry must first abandon its arrogant stance.

There is no way an agreement can be reached if the industry continues to disregard our proposals while treating us with disrespect.

Please stay tuned for more information and remember that our solidarity is the key to our winning a fair contract deal.

We deserve nothing less.

Further Reading

From the archives