Holding the line against Big Oil

March 18, 2015

Lee Sustar talks with striking workers at the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, about the meaning of their struggle against some of the world's most powerful companies.

THE BIG issues in a strike by 6,500 oil refinery workers around the U.S. have been settled as part of a tentative agreement between the United Steelworkers (USW) and oil giant Shell, which will set a pattern for contracts covering a total of 30,000 workers around the U.S. But with local issues unresolved, workers are still on the picket lines.

On the main questions, the union held its ground, winning modest pay increases, preserving an 80 percent/20 percent health care cost-sharing formula, and forcing management to negotiate with the union over staffing levels and outsourcing, rather than simply imposing them. At a time when unions are retreating on these issues, the oil workers have held the line against some of the world's most powerful corporations.

Although bargaining is shaped by the national pattern, the companies are still trying to twist local agreements in their favor. For example, BP, which is squaring off against workers at its huge complex in Whiting, Indiana, wants a "management rights" clause in the proposed contract, which would give management the ability to override traditional contract protections.

USW strikers and supporters on the picket line outside a Whiting, Indiana, refinery
USW strikers and supporters on the picket line outside a Whiting, Indiana, refinery (People’s World)

Having gone on strike in just part of the industry--a move that USW leaders claimed was necessary to avoid government intervention--the union gave up some of its leverage. Now it will be up to USW locals to turn the pattern agreement into acceptable contract language.

So the fight continues. And when you walk inside the United Steelworkers Local 7-1 union hall in Whiting, you instantly understand how the 1,100 strikers at the BP refinery have maintained a virtually 100 percent solid strike.

Alongside the wreath over the riser and podium and the Christmas lights--no one had taken them down before the strike began in Whiting on February 8, and there have been more important things to do since then--is a "Solidarity Board" with message of support. To the left is a big red banner that declares: "RAT NOTICE: Anyone with knowledge of a USW member crossing the picket line must notify a Union Board Member."

A glance around the hall shows the handiwork of people who are used to being precise. The workers accustomed to handling highly toxic substances like benzene and flammable oil products have transformed their hall into an efficient operations center. Portable plastic shelves hold food that has been systematically categorized and neatly arrayed: canned goods, cereal, chips, Ramen noodles--lots of Ramen noodles--hot dog and burger buns. A well-stocked coffee station--a critical supply, given that the strike coincided with record cold temperatures--occupies a large space.

Overhead are handwritten statements of solidarity from the Chicago Teachers Union and low-wage workers from that city's Fight for 15 campaign. A placard from Chicago-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 is full of signatures from members. This is what a well-run strike looks like.

IT'S MID-MORNING on March 12--a day before the USW reached a tentative agreement with Shell Oil to set a national pattern for the industry--and about a dozen people are gathered in the union hall to check in and sign up for a two-hour stint on the picket line or some other task.

The hall manager that day was Ebony Parker, an EMT in the plant, tasked with attending to anyone injured. In just a year on the job, she's seen the many risks at the plant up close, transporting a couple of workers to a trauma center for injuries suffered on the job.

"This is real life here," she said. "I've been here for the release [of oil products] into Lake Michigan, several big fires, and August 27 for the explosion," Parker said, recalling the blast last year that shook houses in the small town of Whiting and shut down a major thoroughfare nearby. "If we don't help ourselves to get this safety issue taken care of, the next explosion may be last one. There are too many lives in jeopardy."

Although BP is Parker's first union job, getting into the plant was a labor movement homecoming of sorts. Her grandmother was a steelworker and member of USW Local 1010, and her mother is a home health care worker and member of Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois-Indiana. She walked picket lines and attended labor events as a kid, and knew the advantages of working union. She sought a job at the BP refinery for seven years. When the offer finally came, she gladly left behind her work as a nonunion EMT.

"What do the say? Union-bred, union-fed," Parker said, checking the assignment boards to make sure picket lines were covered and organizational tasks carried out. If the kitchen--normally working only during union events--needs a cook, it's her job to find someone to handle the assignment. Or maybe it's the "woodchucks"--strikers responsible for chopping and delivering firewood to burn barrels--who are shorthanded. If so, Parker's job for the day is to round up someone to fill in.

It was fairly warm outside--the first warm days after a bitterly cold winter--but the wood got cut and the fires tended anyway. A cold snap was inevitable--and besides, the activity helps fill the time. It's grunt work, but no one complained. Instead, they revved up the electric saw, ribbing each other to keep up their spirits.

AS IN any long strike, there are tensions. Many workers have felt compelled to take jobs to make ends after their paychecks stopped--one has gone as far away as Nevada, Parker said. A good number of workers live in Northwest Indiana communities far from the plant, and it can be hard to transition from the normal work schedule to daily picket duty.

Other USW members, suddenly unable to afford child care outside of school hours find themselves as stay-at-home parents. For some, the extra time with their children is a welcome respite from the long stretches of heavy overtime without a day off. But the weeks without a paycheck means saying "no" to the kids' requests a lot more often.

Ebony Parker gets that. She's got a child of her own. But the pressures that keep some strikers away from the picket lines have left others, like Parker, to carry a bigger burden. No one complained, but the frustration is real enough.

Out on the picket lines, some workers, even after a month on strike, still seethed when a busload of "replacement workers"--management's phrase for scabs--rolled through the plant gates.

Greater anger, however, was reserved for the outside contractors, most of them members of Carpenters and Pipefitters union locals. They normally work alongside USW members in the plant to handle certain maintenance tasks and construction projects. Now, the word is that they're doing USW work, alongside management personnel and out-of-state scabs recruited from nonunion refineries.

In any case, if union contract workers simply honored the USW picket lines, the BP plant would be forced to shut down in short order, since management wouldn't be able to maintain production or meet safety guidelines. But on that score, BP management is always willing to cut corners, says Dave, a striker on picket duty at the gate near the company's main office. It's USW members who figure out how to do a job safely, he said. Management's attitude? "They don't care how it gets done," he says.

The strike has brought to the surface BP workers' long-simmering anger at being treated as disposable. When they say the strike isn't about money, that's not union PR spin for the media. As one of the last pockets of decently paid blue-collar unionized production workers, they can make, with overtime, around $100,000 per year.

And there's always plenty of overtime, like it or not. Low-seniority workers are routinely "drafted"-- management's term--to work an extra couple of hours beyond a 12-hour shift. If someone calls in sick, another two or four hours can be added on top of that. "I recently worked 18 days in a row, and four of those days had 18-hour shifts," one striker said. Exhausted, workers sometimes call off the job to get a day off, which pushes the overtime onto others.

It's impossible to put in those kinds of hours in a refinery and work safely, which is why almost any striker will tell you that their main fight is for a safe workplace. "What good is the paycheck if you're dead?" one veteran worker said.

THE SAFTEY issue is part of USW Local 7-1's tradition. The local was part of the former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union--the union of workplace safety crusader and labor martyr Karen Silkwood--that merged with another union that was later absorbed into the USW.

The focus on safety feeds directly into union solidarity. It's a culture where people's lives are in the hands of their co-workers, a camaraderie reflected in summer softball leagues and, now, on the picket line.

The refinery's union culture, which developed when the plant was owned by the old Amoco company, has survived BP management's attempts to eliminate it. Pete, a 26-year veteran of the plant, recalled how, in 2000, management offered a buyout to entice veteran workers--many of them participants in the big 1980 oil industry strike--into early retirement. "They wanted to get them out, get a different crowd," Pete said. "They wanted to brainwash their own people, so they would listen to [BP] instead of comparing them to Amoco."

BP's brainwashing didn't take. Workers who weren't yet born during the last strike have, if they hadn't already, absorbed their local union's history over the course of this fight.

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin state legislature passed a "right-to-work" law, joining Indiana and Michigan as former Midwestern industrial strongholds where Republicans have rammed through the anti-union legislation. The determination of workers in Whiting and at other strike-bound refineries around the country give a clear demonstration of workers' power--a badly needed example at a moment when Corporate America and right-wing politicians are determined to deal a final, crippling blow to unions.

It's an example that can spread. Just ask the driver of the big white tour bus struggling to turn his vehicle around in the smallish Local 7-1 parking lot. It looked like he'd taken a wrong turn and missed the Horseshoe Casino in neighboring Hammond a couple of miles away.

He came into the hall, and politely asked to use the restroom. When the strikers in the hall learned that he was a Teamster and that he'd just dropped off a delegation of USW Local 9231 members who work at the ArcelorMittal steel mill in New Carlisle, Indiana, he was immediately sat down and well fed.

Few mainstream news organizations bother to cover labor these days, so the importance of the oil strike may not be apparent to those who haven't seen it up close. But back on the picket line, Dave offered a convincing assessment. "Everyone has a stake in this," he said. "Everyone has their eyes on us. If we fold, all labor folds. This is huge."

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