On strike against the next "accident"

Ragina Johnson, David Judd and Elizabeth Schulte explain what members of the United Steelworkers are fighting for in their strike at oil refineries across the U.S.

USW oil workers on the picket line in Whiting, IndianaUSW oil workers on the picket line in Whiting, Indiana

AN EXPLOSION at an ExxonMobil oil refinery in Torrance, California, on February 18 injured four contractors and forced 14 area schools to keep students indoors when a fine dust wafted over the city just south of Los Angeles.

The blast revealed the very high stakes in the oil workers' strike that has spread across the country.

United Steelworkers (USW) members began hitting the picket line on February 1 after representatives of the major oil companies refused to negotiate seriously during talks on a contract covering some 30,000 workers throughout the industry.

The unfair labor practices strike has now expanded to more than 6,500 workers at 15 facilities--with workers joining the walkout last weekend at oil refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, and Convent and Norco, Louisiana. More refineries could join the strike soon, since many plants continue to work under 24-hour rolling extensions of the contract.

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THE MAIN issues for union members are safety, staffing and training.

The companies' record of accidents shows that the oil industry bosses accept injuries and deaths as just part of doing business. The Torrance explosion is the latest example of this.

In terms of safety violations, the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance is what's called a repeat offender. In 1994, a gas explosion injured 28 people, at least six seriously. In 1988, one person was killed and nine injured, with some suffering severe burns, in a blast at the refinery.

According to Division of Occupational Safety and Health in California, the Torrance refinery has accumulated more than $100,000 in penalties for equipment and safety violations over the last five years. According to the Los Angeles Times:

In one incident dated September 2011, the company was cited for not tracking accidents that may lead to major accidents. In one case, the company did not report an accident until five months after it happened. The following year, a coker drum operator was injured when a 760-pound steel guide plate dropped on his left foot during a rigging operation. The worker was unqualified to perform rigging operations.

Throughout the industry, management is insisting on using contractors to perform union work. This is a major concern for the union oil workers, who know firsthand the dangers of inadequately trained contractors. As Jim Payne, financial secretary of United Steelworkers Local 5 in Northern California, said in an interview with labor journalist David Bacon:

We get a lot of specific training on what we do out there. Contractors can be working in one place one day, and then in another area the next. They get only a basic level of training to come into the refinery.

Over the years the companies have compensated for the attrition of the USW membership by backfilling with contractors. The level of training has obviously dropped off because of that. Where the companies have contractors who have been on the job a year or more, we want them to fill these positions through company hires. Relying on a better-trained proprietary employee would give us better plant safety.

In other words, as union jobs have vanished at the refineries, safety for all workers has vanished alongside them.

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AT THE picket line at the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, California, workers described the conditions that led to their walkout. According to Tracy Scott, a representative of USW Local 5 who has worked at the plant:

The industry has moved back and away from safety programs. Tesoro canceled two in the last two years, VPP and TOP. These had been driving safety numbers and injuries down, producing positive outcomes, but the corporation decided not to fund them anymore. They'll say accidents are still low, but the numbers are moving in the wrong direction now.

On the company hiring contractors, Scott said, "Maintenance contractors don't have the same sense of ownership of equipment. Our people walk around those machines every day--contractors are sometimes here today, gone tomorrow. Even the full-time contractors don't get the same training."

A worker who preferred to remain anonymous--because "retaliation is a Tesoro specialty"--explained:

Maintenance people are retiring or quitting, and they're not filling the jobs. They bring in contractors instead, guys who may have never worked in a refinery before. We tell them what protective equipment they need and get pushback.

[In February 2014], there was an issue with improperly crimped tubing for a sulfuric acid sample station at the Alkylation Plant done by a maintenance contractor. When an operator opened a valve later, two people got sprayed by sulfuric acid. They had to be airlifted out to the University of California Davis medical center, with severe burns to their faces. They were out five to six months.

The company investigation blamed operators, our shift-change communication and bad notes. But any of us could have opened that valve and got burned at any time. They also found another station with the identical problem--we just got lucky that didn't come apart too.

Other safety issues include scheduling and short-staffing. The American Petroleum Institute recommends a maximum number of hours and days for refinery workers, but the oil companies often play fast and loose with this, forcing workers to work 10- or 12-hour shifts, sometimes back to back.

"Some people are working 50 percent over their schedules on overtime," Scott said. Staffing is too low, so "they need to either hire more and spread it out, or have people fatigued and unsafe. Most work 10- to 12-hour shifts. Some now have overtime on top and are called out late at night. Operators get overtime on their days off, but maintenance workers get called back out the same night, maybe after working a 10-hour shift."

The company saves money by not having to schedule another worker, making the cold calculation that the risk of a fatigued employee--working with dangerous chemicals at high temperatures--is worth it.

In addition, the companies want to eliminate language that has been part of contracts with the USW for years. For example, one major concern in negotiations is successorship, which is the promise that if a refinery is sold to another company, the new employer must honor the existing contract and hire current union members. This is an important issue in an industry in which plants are regularly sold and resold--but management wants it on the chopping block.

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OIL WORKERS are connecting their working conditions with the effect on the safety of communities near the refineries. As one sign on the picket line at Martinez read, "Safe Labor. Safe World."

Solidarity for striking oil workers is growing. In Martinez, climate justice activists and union members mobilized for a picket in solidarity with Local 5 sponsored by the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club on February 22--which is part of growing list of climate justice groups organizing support for workers.

On February 18, about 150 supporters gathered outside of Tesoro's gates in what is now a regular weekly picket organized by the California Nurses Association, which mobilizes other labor and environmental justice organizations. The call for the picket was titled "Safety for the workers = A healthier and safer community." The nurses call to action stated:

Join in supporting the striking refinery workers and their demands for critical health and safety protections. United Steelworkers are on strike over serious health and safety concerns. Workers cite outsourcing, short-staffing, forced overtime that produces dangerous fatigue, and a lack of stop-work authority protections to prevent dangerous refinery accidents. Nurses, labor and the climate and environmental justice community understand that we must support and have solidarity with front-line workers raising their voices through action.

Nurses led chants "Tesoro heads up! The workers won't give up" and "No safety, no peace!" They also shouted down scabs and managers who crossed the picket line. Members of other unions are also walking the picket lines in solidarity with oil workers--including postal workers, who have seen increasing attacks on their union and post office closures; and International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers who are locked in their own contract struggle on the West Coast docks.

Importantly, workers from other refineries have also attended the Martinez picket line regularly in solidarity with strikers--even though their own sites haven't walked out yet. Family members of workers came out in vocal support, and at least one person explained that multiple generations of their family have worked at the Tesoro refinery. These community members talked about how they suffered from years of environmental pollution, including very high cancer rates surrounding the refinery.

On February 17, the city council in Richmond, California, passed a resolution asking Chevron to shut down its Richmond refinery if permanent employees go on strike. The council and community are concerned that the refinery shouldn't be run by contractors further endangering people and the environment. The resolution is probably not binding on the corporation, but is an example of the broad support for union members who speak out on the front line of the fight for safe living conditions.

Meanwhile, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) has been harassing workers on the picket line at Tesoro, claiming that a continuous picket stopping scabs creates "health and safety" issues with traffic. Workers said at the February 18 rally that this was the first day the CHP had backed off their most heavy-handed harassment--no doubt because of the large numbers on hand that day.

For many workers and their families, it's clear that this fight is about something bigger. They see it as part of pushing back against decades of erosion of union power and workers' rights on the job. As Scott put it:

In the last six years, the industry has taken on an anti-union animus in negotiation. They're taking advantage of the political climate in this country.

A victory for us means a union role in health and safety programs and determining who's a qualified employee, making sure people coming through without certifications are brought on full time, so they can be trained, like us. Health care is an issue--they want to roll that back like everywhere. But we're especially focused on fatigue standards, contractor issues and making sure "management rights" don't come at our expense--at the cost of our health and safety.