The Fire Next Time?

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

Refinery and chemical plant management have done little to dissuade the workers from their fears. Since the 1994 contract negotiations with GCIWU, Exxon has been playing tough with the union, especially on safety issues. And against an independent union with no national organization to back it, huge multinational Exxon holds most of the cards: during the negotiations, the union offered a number of suggestions to improve health and safety, but all were summarily rejected. "The company wouldn't listen," says GCIWU business agent and attorney Sharon Groth. "They wouldn't even let us put 'em on the table."

The proposals included a joint safety committee modeled after a similar group at the Shell plant in Deer Park that had proven a success. According to Groth, refinery human resources division manager Dave Clements responded with one of his favorite phrases: "We have no energy around that."

Exxon's hardball tactics didn't stop after the two sides reached agreement. Though the GCIWU contract includes a provision for binding arbitration of grievances, for example, the company has simply refused to abide by four decisions that went against it. Groth sees a pattern, "a very punitive, and in some cases vindictive approach in dealing with employee-relations issues."

Though management has grudgingly moved on several of the safety committee's concerns, all signs point to another fight. After the unions rejected a company attempt to co-opt the committee, several higher-ups began badmouthing the group as anti-Exxon.

The company's latest tack is divide and conquer. At least three of the four union heads were recently called onto the carpet about the new safety committee. Tim Urban of the machinists union says refinery human resources section supervisor Jack McCarthy told him it would be better for his membership if he dissociated himself from the group. Urban declined.

Sources at the plant, however, say that Marvin Boozer of the electrical workers is more sympathetic to the management view and may urge his membership to pull out. Boozer denies it, though he says the nature of his discussions on the subject is for union ears only.

Regardless of the strategy, it seems unlikely the company will offer the union safety committee a seat at the table anytime soon. The committee has extended invitations to meet with plant manager Sherri Stuewer to discuss the issues, but she has yet to respond.

The skirmishes over the safety committee could escalate when the union contract expires next year. The Crown Central Petroleum refinery in Pasadena, where workers have been locked out since February in a bitter contract dispute, may offer a glimpse of the future: talks have broken off since Crown claimed that workers sabotaged plant equipment, a charge the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union at Crown calls absurd.

OCAW regional director Joe Christie says the issues Exxon workers are confronting mirror those at refineries around the country. All are downsizing, cutting back on maintenance costs and otherwise skimping on safety. Nor are the horror stories confined to the Baytown plants. "There have been near misses in these [other] refineries," Christie says. "If the public only knew ...."

But the public doesn't know. And if current efforts in Congress succeed in gutting OSHA's enforcement abilities, the last line of defense for groups such as the union safety committee, Exxon and others may be free to operate as they please -- until a near miss turns into another Phillips disaster.

Why Exxon doesn't take every precaution to avoid such a fate makes no sense to Tim Webster, especially in view of the company's frequent assertion that worker safety is its number one priority. "Maybe we don't understand all of management's frustrations," Webster says. "It seems like when we bring [safety concerns] over to 'em, they should be appreciative.

"I don't know what's going on in their heads.

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