Shell Games

Did the petrochemical giant fudge the facts to get rid of a pesky worker?

But that offer never came, and in the fall of 1992, Bennett filed his first union grievance to get his job back. Shell rejected the claim on the grounds that he wasn't yet healthy enough to return to his old job. As for alternatives, as refinery spokesman Dennis Winkler says, "There were no jobs available that Shell was comfortable that Ron could work with his job restrictions."

Shell's change of heart may have been influenced by Bennett's increasing contentiousness, which began to grate on the image-conscious company as early as July 1991, after he indicated he'd hired a lawyer. Subsequent charges filed with the EEOC and NLRB didn't help. (They were later dismissed.) And when Bennett threatened to picket the annual Houston Shell Open golf tournament as well as company headquarters downtown, management took offense. "I responded that Shell certainly preferred that he not attempt to tarnish our public image," wrote human resources manager B.C. Smith after a meeting with Bennett.

Bennett's physical ability to return to work may have been in question for a while, but by the end of 1994, most doubts should have been erased. After the company finally enrolled him in a work-hardening rehab program late in the year, the doctor who examined Bennett pronounced him fit and ready. "Shepper approves Hydro job and build up over two months," read Reggie Thomas's notes after a talk with the doctor.

Perhaps aware that its no-jobs case against Bennett is thin, Shell expanded its strategy to include a novel argument: Bennett doesn't want his job. In a November 1996 psychiatric report prepared for a federal court case (which Bennett filed but recently dropped), Baylor College of Medicine professor John Meyer claims that Bennett "was offered at least two job positions," but turned down both. "Ultimately, it was Mr. Bennett's refusal to return to work that prevented/stifled the company's ability and attempts to return him to work."

Bennett laughs off the charge, citing his repeated attempts to win back his job through legal channels as proof that he wants to work. Besides, even if the company had made verbal overtures to Bennett, the collective bargaining agreement with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers requires that the matter be resolved through union channels.

James Webber, OCAW vice president of operations, is handling the pending arbitration hearing. Webber claims that Shell's case is weak, and that the company is jerking Bennett around mostly because it can. "Shell's kind of arrogant that way," he says. "They're the kind of company that would spend a million to save a dollar."

What's at stake for the refinery's workers, Webber says, is the cooperation they receive from the company in future disability cases. "If we win," he says, "the company is gonna be a lot more interested in working the issues out [in the future]."

While he awaits resolution of his case, Bennett works on the production line at the Dreyer's Ice Cream plant in northwest Houston. "It's the most physical job I've ever had in my life," he says.

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