Shell and USW representatives may be starting another round of negotiations soon, but things are getting more tense on the picket line as the strike drags on. Congressman Gene Green came out on Saturday morning to meet with USW District 13-1 local president Lee Medley and to talk with the people on the picket lines.
So far, USW reps have rejected at least seven contract offers from Shell, and pulled more than 6,500 workers at 15 plants -- with about 5,000 coming from 12 oil refineries -- since the strike started on February 1. Locally, the strike started by pulling union workers out of LyondellBasell, Marathon's Texas City Refinery and Shell Deer Park. The two sides are reportedly butting heads over safety issues, rules that make sure fatigued workers aren't stuck on the job, and contractors. Talks haven't exactly been going well.
Things have been tense between the two parties -- management and the hourly union workers -- since the whole thing started, but things reached a new level last week at the Shell Deer Park refinery after three men walking the picket line were arrested by Harris County Sheriff's Office deputies; the men were charged with illegally obstructing a highway, each spending a night in jail before posting $500 bond. Green started his Saturday morning talking to the trio that was arrested. "I was out there in the '80 strike and it wasn't anything like this," Cloy Gilbert, one of the three men arrested, said while Green listened and nodded. "When the strike ended we went back into the refinery fine. There wasn't animosity like this."
Armando Garza and Fernando Gonzalez, the other two men arrested, stood across from Gilbert, nodding at what he said. They described how things have been at Shell Deer Park, with security watching their every move while they walk a picket line just outside of the property line on the edge of the highway.
"This is the kind of stuff that makes us dislike each other. Our plant will never be the same after this, and it was a good place to work before that," Medley told Green. Relations between the strikers and Shell management have gotten so bad that Shell security guards -- some of them off-duty Harris County Sheriff's deputies -- have started ticketing people for stopping to drop off water at the picket line sites, Medley says.
After that Green and Medley and a troupe of picket line walkers piled into a white van to head out to the actual picket line. The men arrested last week declined to tag along, justifiably noting that they didn't want to risk another run in with the law. The wind was sharp and cold and the people walking picket were dressed in thick coats and gloves. USW District 13-1 set up little temporary shacks at each picket line zone so there'd be someplace to duck in and get out of the weather, but Medley told Green that Shell officials told him that they weren't allowed to use the facilities they'd set up until they moved the buildings completely off Shell property.
Meanwhile, Medley acknowledged that more people have crossed the picket line in the past couple weeks, about 100 so far (though some estimates have put that number at about 150).
Green, who started out as a union member, pointed out that his congressional district is probably the strongest union district in Texas. Of course, he acknowledged, that's not saying much, since Texas is a right-to-work state and the unions have been an anemic presence at best, for the most part. "There's some real issues on the bargaining table," he said. "People working 10 and 12 days straight without a day off. It's not safe for anyone to do that," he said.
Green shook hands and listened to people talk on the Shell picket line. He even picked up a sign and did a little walking himself alongside Medley and a few of the picket line walkers who were finishing up their shift. Robert Fickman, the lawyer representing the men arrested last week, rode along and took the opportunity to start doing his research for the case. He was snapping photos for less than a minute when a set of security guards rolled up looking stern and asked him what he was up to. Green and everyone else watched the exchange which ended with the guards driving off.
Things were a little more relaxed over at LyondellBasell. Brani Aiken, a longtime employee at LyondellBasell, said they've been walking about 12 miles per shift since the strike started. There's no question with her or any of the people on the line whether it's worth all this effort. "We've come such a long way from the way things used to be at these places. I just want to make sure we keep getting better and don't go backwards," she said.
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Michael Segree told Green their worries about the non-union people running the refinery right now -- the same worries that just about every union member brings up when they talk about what might be going on behind the refinery gates. "You know, these things can run themselves for a few days, maybe a week, but eventually something is going to go wrong and then you need people who know what to do."
Green listened and nodded and shook hands all around. A Democrat, he's worked with the refineries and chemical plants -- which makes sense because that's what his district is comprised of -- but as a lifelong union member, he understands where the strikers are coming from. Plus, he's seen what happens when things go wrong at the chemical plants and refineries.
Green talked about the accident at DuPont that killed four workers last November. He noted that safety concerns had gone unchecked at that plant and at a BP refinery in Texas City where a 2005 explosion killed 15 workers. "We had four people from my district at DuPont, and I represented one of the people killed at the BP refinery explosion," Green said.
Green mentioned that he'd held a town hall the other day and a woman got up and talked about how the refinery management juggles the fatigue requirements so that people are stuck working long hours with next to no time off. She'd just come off an 11-day shift herself, he said. "These plants are volatile and we need people working in them to be rested and aware of what's going on."