At noon Friday, about 125 United Steel Worker union members gathered across the street from Shell's Houston headquarters. Most arrived on a yellow school bus that pulled up to the curb across the street from One Shell Plaza, a gleaming tower of cream-colored concrete located at 910 Louisiana Street in downtown Houston.
The union members at nine refineries across the United States, including three in the Houston area, have been on strike since 12:01 a.m. Sunday and they show no signs of letting up. These refineries account for about 10 percent of the U.S. refining capacity. USW's national leadership called a strike after negotiations between USW, which is working on behalf of U.S. refinery workers, and the oil industry, which is being represented by Royal Dutch Shell, ended without a new contract. The points of contention are mainly on safety concerns and the amount of overtime employees are expected to work. Union representatives say they still haven't resolved things with the oil industry, and noted that more refineries may go on strike in the coming days.
There was a giddiness in the crowd, composed of young men in work boots and coveralls, children, older men walking with canes and young women pushing baby carriages. Even the ones who looked like they might be old enough to remember the last steel strike, back in the 1980s, paced around, cheeks ruddy from the cold, talking about how this was their first strike. Everyone was decked out in USW caps, shirts, vests and jackets. Some had homemade signs and some had ready-made USW signage. They lined up along the curb, taking up an entire block as they arranged themselves.
All week long, USW members have been gathered outside of the Shell, LyondellBasell and Marathon refineries, two or three of them working each gate, holding up signs and shaking their fists in the air when a car or truck honked to show solidarity. "They keep saying that this is about money, that this is just about greed, but that's not why we're doing this," Mark Young, a Shell employee, says. "We want to go to work and be safe. It's not simple, though. If it were simple, we'd all be at work and we wouldn't be out here."
During a strike, union members aren't getting paid and there is always a risk that their jobs may not be there after the strike is resolved. But it never occurred to anyone not to follow through and go out on the strike. "No, this is how it works," one man said as he walked along holding his USW sign tilted so the cars driving through downtown could read it. "They never thought in a thousand years we'd walk out, but we did it."
Houston police officers began arriving just before noon along with the people attending the rally. The officers stood on the corners. away from the crowd, watching and telling people to use the crosswalk. A clump of police gathered just outside the glass doors of the Shell building, presumably to keep both protesters and media out. Shell employees, the white-collar kind dressed in button-down shirts and ties and pencil skirts and heels, stood in the foyer of the building, gawking and taking photos.
At noon, the protest started a slow, steady, shuffling march around the building. People in the columns held up their signs -- calling for better negotiations, for better safety, for Big Oil to take them seriously -- and answered the call and responses of two guys with megaphones.
U.S. Rep. Al Green showed up wearing an American flag hoody and he walked at the front of the rally for a bit. Jeff Lewis, a man with a long silver mustache and a megaphone, led the way as the protestors made steady laps around the building.
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
"Sorry, dude, I'm walking upstream right now," a man in a suit said as he pressed through the crowd. He stopped for a moment, turned and watched as the protesters marched past. "It's the steelworkers strike. I read about it. Can you hear that?" he asked, referring to the chants. "No? What about now?" He held his phone up higher to catch the noise of the crowd.
Another set of people, including a guy who plucked away at the banjo slung over his shoulder whenever there was an idle moment in the march, sang and shouted as another guy in a USW cap and megaphone -- the megaphone is the big distinguishing characteristic here because everyone has USW caps -- sang and shouted. A small fleet of mounted police clip-clopped alongside them as the group circled the building a third time.
"One day longer!"
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"One day stronger!"
A panhandler stopped on the street corner and watched the parade as it made slow, steady progress on another loop around the Shell building. "I'm soooooooooo glad I live in a free country where this can happen!" he yelled. The protesters smiled and shook their signs at him in a friendly way.
While the police officers had acted wary at first, they'd relaxed about the whole thing after about an hour of watching the strikers loop around the building, always crossing at tjhe crosswalks and never once tying up traffic. A union member stopped walking and stepped toward an officer, hand outstretched. "I just wanted to thank you for being here, sir." The officer shook his hand and nodded.
The rally ended at about 1:30. When the yellow school bus pulled up, people folded up their signs and climbed aboard.