The Fire Next Time?

Downsizing, outsourcing, deferred maintenance ... It all makes for a volatile mix at Baytown's Exxon refinery.

The issue came to a head last May, when the company asked Bart Albright, president of the GCIWU, to remove member Dewey Hughes from the permit audit team. Hughes, one of two union appointees on the four-man committee, had aggressively questioned violations of the permit rules. Albright refused. In January, claiming Hughes was needed to work a turnaround in Fuels North, the company yanked him from the team anyway. The union withdrew in protest, leaving the team with worker reps hand-picked by management.

Refinery spokesman Ron Embry admitted that management selects safety personnel, but said it's not especially relevant. "Let me just say that we continue to work with our employees and the unions on these kinds of issues," he said, "and I think it has been an effective kind of partnership that we've developed."

Not effective enough, apparently. The grumbles from the work force having reached a dull roar, members of the GCIWU, as well as the machinists, electrical and clerical workers unions decided to act. They met in August at the GCIWU hall and crafted an unprecedented plan -- to form a joint union health and safety committee outside the official company structure. The meticulous, even-keeled Tim Webster was elected chair.

The purpose of the committee, its members agreed, was to serve as a confidential, last-resort option for workers who had voiced concerns through official channels but had been rebuffed. The committee would discuss each complaint and investigate its merits, then try to resolve the matter internally. If all else failed, OSHA would get a call.

At first, the company ignored the committee's letters and requests for information. A couple of OSHA investigations later, however, management perked up, though it has yet to officially acknowledge the committee's existence, responding instead through the union presidents. OSHA is currently investigating major safety violations at Pipestill 7 and should issue a ruling soon.

According to several plant sources, the company is none too pleased with the new group. At least one plant manager refers to the group as a "rogue committee," and several have complained of frivolous safety claims and a desire to damage the company's reputation. But committee members, who carefully document every move, politely disagree. "We're not on a witch-hunt," says Webster. "I don't want to put anything out there that's not factual, that we can't stand behind."

The workers have been more enthusiastic. As word of the committee has spread, a stack of employee safety concerns has flooded the union hall. "It's ended up where we've got more than we can handle," says Webster.

The committee's efforts seem to be bearing fruit. Repairs that had lagged were finally made after committee intervention. When workers reported that a contractor was operating a tugboat without a license, the committee passed along the concern and the contractor was suspended. And when another tip exposed unsafe contractor practices with the collection, storage and transport of hazardous tank samples, a safety committee discussion with management yielded the same result.

Managers have repeatedly said that any repairs or other correctives sought by the committee were part of the plan, that they would have been done anyway. "Whatever they want to say, that's fine with me, as long as the problems get addressed," Webster says without a trace of irritation. "All we're asking is a resolution to the concern."

1995 was a good year for Exxon Corporation. In February, the company announced record profits of $6.5 billion, up 27 percent over the previous year. In addition to increased sales, according to the company's annual report, the good news was largely due to "operating efficiencies," especially on the job front. Total employment worldwide at Exxon has dropped from 101,000 in 1991 to 82,000 in 1995, contributing heavily to a savings of $1.4 billion in operating costs during the same period.

The search for such savings will continue. "We are confident that further efficiencies will be achieved as all parts of the company continue their efforts to be the most efficient competitor," the company reported.

Not three weeks after trumpeting its fiscal success, Exxon announced 350 new job cuts on the production side, some in Houston.

The tidings went down quite well with Exxon's board of directors, who have rewarded the corporation's top executives with mammoth raises based partly on keeping stock prices and dividends high. Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond, for example, received almost $4.4 million in cash and benefits in 1995, up 53 percent in two years. Raymond will surely be rewarded for last year's stellar performance, because his pay is tied directly to corporate profits. As a March proxy statement notes, Exxon's executive pay program "is E designed to make a substantial component of senior executives' potential compensation dependent upon increased shareholder return."

Missing from this loop, of course, is Exxon's labor force. And at the Baytown refinery, an aging facility built in 1919 that the company says lost $36 million last year, the constant pressure from above to cut costs and improve the bottom line has put the squeeze on safety spending, despite management's claim to the contrary. "From the time you come out here, you're indoctrinated with safety first -- safety, safety, safety," says Don Brent, who just retired after 15 years as a refinery technician. "But it's safety until it's gonna cost 'em money."

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