The first nationwide strike at U.S. oil refineries since 1980 is expanding to two more plants due to unfair labor practices by oil companies. Walk-outs at BP Plc’s Whiting, Indiana, refinery and the company’s joint-venture refinery with Husky Energy in Toledo, Ohio, shortly after 12 a.m. local time on Sunday would bring the number of plants with striking hourly workers to 11, including nine refineries accounting for 13 percent of U.S. refining capacity. About 4,000 workers at refineries in California, Kentucky, Texas and Washington initially left their jobs when the strike began shortly after midnight on Feb. 1.
Another 1,440 workers will join the picket lines when employees of the BP-operated refineries in Indiana and Ohio. This will be accounting for 13 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
The union, United Steelworkers, said in a statement that U.S. refinery owners led by Royal Dutch Shell Plc have failed to discuss health and safety issues and engaged in “bad-faith bargaining, including the refusal to bargain over mandatory subjects; undue delays in providing information; impeded bargaining; and threats issued to workers if they joined the strike.”
Aware that the oil companies and media will try to portray the union’s members as greedy bastards, USW spokeswoman, Lynne Hancock, made it clear that, while hourly wages are a component of these negotiations (as they have been in virtually every contract negotiation in every industry in history), they are not central to the bargain. This shutdown isn’t about hourly pay. “Wages are not a part of this walkout whatsoever,” she said, adding that the workers are seeking better health care benefits and limits on the use of contractors to replace union members in maintenance jobs.
The local Toledo union posted on its Facebook page that the “strike is NOT about money, this is about addressing safety issues that have been ignored for way too long … 138 workers were killed on the job while extracting, producing, or supporting oil and gas in 2012 … the number was more than double that of 2009.”
USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program (NOBP) cited “flagrant contracting” as having a negative impact on health and safety. The most common causes for oil and gas accidents include failure to provide proper training to new employees and failure to properly implement and update safety procedures.
In January there were at least four major mishaps at a U.S. pipelines that resulted in costly explosions or spills. In 2013, Texas led the country in oil and gas sector fatalities with 106. Overall, oil and gas workers are six times more likely to die on the job than average Americans. With the recent growth of the industry due to the proliferation of new drilling techniques such as fracking, safety measures can suffer. In North Dakota, which has been at the forefront of the oil boom, the fatality rate for industry workers was three times the national average in 2013.
“Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them,” said USW International President Leo Gerard. USW represents about 30,000 workers at more than 200 refineries, terminals, and pipelines across the country.
Among the issues central to the strike are: mandatory employee contributions to medical insurance, continued reductions in headcount (leading to lower staffing, longer hours and more fatigue), and the company’s refusal to take seriously the union’s request that the membership be trained for jobs that are increasingly being performed by outside contractors. This outside contractor issue has become a huge deal to unions everywhere. And when it reaches critical mass, it’s going to become a huge deal to non-union workers as well. Based on what’s occurring in the marketplace, it’s the dream of every company to change the status of their workers from “employee” to “independent contractor,” thereby allowing them not to have to pay for insurance, pensions, vacations or holidays. Once your employees become classified as contractors, all you have to do is give them cash for doing the job. Write them a paycheck and be done with it. And because there’s almost always going to be a surplus of workers, market forces are going to constantly drive wages downward. But even on those occasions when employers are required to pay top dollar for workers, the savings in benefits and administrative costs is going to be enormous. Which is why the move toward “de-categorizing” employees has become so popular.
Oil companies are continuing to operate all but one of the plants with temporary replacement scab workers.
The notion of loyal employees retiring after working thirty years for the same company is an anachronism. Companies don’t want loyalty. They want flexibility.