USW and Shell are in Houston to Talk Again

USW and Shell are in Houston to Talk Again
Photo by Max Burkhalter

After a month on strike, representatives of the United Steelworkers and Royal Dutch Shell are meeting at an undisclosed location in Houston today to see if they can finally hammer out a deal.

This is the first major oil refinery worker strike in 35 years. USW, on behalf of its 30,000 oil refinery workers, has been negotiating a contract with Shell, working on behalf of the oil companies, since January 21.

The two sides have been butting heads on a number of issues, including safety (USW says they want the refineries to be more safe, Shell says safety isn't what USW is really after), contract workers (USW says they want Shell to hire union people instead of contract workers because they're better trained, but Shell says USW just wants to add numbers to its union), fatigue policy (USW wants a stricter policy to keep employees from working when tired, Shell says the current policy agreed to on the last round of negotiations in 2012 is fine) along with the usual arm wrestling over pay raises and benefits.

Shell reps must have felt pretty confident going into the contract negotiations this time around. After all, oil prices are at rock bottom levels, meaning there are tons of layoffs in the industry.

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While low oil prices are actually good for refineries -- they're getting cheaper materials to make their products -- the layoff climate is bad for unions, Ray Marshall, former Secretary of Labor under President Jimmy Carter who got his academic start studying the labor unions in the South, says. "Unions and workers tend to gain when there's full employment around them, but higher levels of unemployment greatly weakens their bargaining powers," he says. But when the industry is unstable and there are people to fill those jobs the union loses some of its strength at the bargaining table, he says.

However, so far USW representatives don't seem daunted. They have rejected at least seven contracts from Shell since this thing started and have now called out more than 6,000 workers at 15 plants (including 12 refineries that manufacture about a fifth of the nations oil) across the country.

Locally, that has translated to union workers walking off the job from Shell Deer Park, LyondellBasell, Marathon's Texas City and -- as of February 21 -- Motiva, the largest refinery in the country, located in Port Arthur.

On both a local and a national front USW representatives claim that union members are standing firm. The ones around here are definitely still walking picket around their refineries -- mostly in the rain and cold, though one LyondellBasell picket walker looked on the bright side and pointed out that at least they weren't having to trudge the picket line in all of that snow up north -- but there's been a creeping weariness to the people. Every day that goes by without a contract is a day the strikers are scraping by without a paycheck or health benefits.

USW District 13-1, the local that represents Shell Deer Park employees, now has a fully stocked food pantry to help out those in need. Some people are getting by on their savings, some have a nonunion spouse allowing them to still pay bills while others are finding jobs that will allow them to keep food on the table without having to cross the picket line. But some union members are giving in and going back to work, Lee Medley, USW District 13-1 president, says. USW isn't keeping a clear count of which union members are crossing the picket line, but Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said that 20 percent of Shell Deer Park's 800 union workers have already come back to work.

Still, Shell apparently needs more hands to keep the refinery going. Shell announced last week that it is hiring "relief workers" and that Shell Deer Park would thus be fully staffed by summer. This may sound like an ominous move for strikers who plan on getting back to their jobs once this thing is finally resolved, but Medley says that because they are holding an unfair labor practices strike and not an economic strike union members are protected by the law.

However, when asked if Shell will take back all of the striking employees once the two sides work out a contract, op de Weegh replied to the question without answering it. "We are unwavering in our commitments to our employees, communities and customers, and those commitments will guide every decision and action as we move forward," she stated via email.

Meanwhile, there's no telling how long this strike will actually last. The oil refineries need the workers back, and the union members need their jobs, so it's really a question of who can hold out the longest. USW still has more union members to call out on strike if it so chooses. At the same time, the oil companies have been reacting to these strikes with more openly aggressive tactics than usual, analysts have observed. And on the local level things have been getting tense, with accusations of bullying from both sides and the arrest of some strikers, as we've previously reported.

All of this makes us wonder what it's going to be like with the two sides sitting down to negotiate one more time. Their last attempt at it was a brief tête-à-tête teleconference last week where the parties apparently talked just enough to decide that they wouldn't be doing any other chatting until today.

These negotiations are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, a law that has pretty much stayed the same since it was created during the Great Depression. The two sides have to keep negotiating in "good faith," Ronald Turner, a professor of labor law at the University of Houston, says, but they aren't required by law to come to an agreement.

So as of right now, the union reps and Shell officials should be ensconced somewhere in the city (One Shell Plaza, perhaps) chock full of "good faith" but there's no telling if any of that will actually lead to a deal.

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