All week long representatives from United Steelworkers and Royal Dutch Shell have been ensconced in some undisclosed Houston location trying to hammer out a national contract for the USW oil refinery workers that both sides can agree on. They've admitted that the two sides have been talking in the same room and everything all week, but that's all they will admit to.
The national arm of USW, negotiating on behalf of more than 30,000 oil refinery workers, and Shell, negotiating on behalf of the oil companies, have been grappling over the details of this contract - a contract that sets the standards that local USW union districts use to negotiate local contracts with the oil companies - since January 21. When they failed to reach an agreement by the end of the old contract USW started calling union workers out on strike from refineries and chemical plants on February 1. Local USW workers at Shell Deer Park, LyondellBasell and Marathon's Texas City refinery were some of the first pulled out. Since the start of the strike USW has called out more than 6,000 workers from 15 chemical plants, including 12 oil refineries, on strike.
Meanwhile, USW and Shell representatives have met or talked via teleconference in an attempt to work out a deal, but have repeatedly come up short, butting heads over various issues including the use of contract workers, safety standards and the current fatigue policy. USW has rejected seven contract offers so far. After only meeting briefly via teleconference last week, the fact that the two sides were going to be in the same city and the same room this week seemed like progress.
Still, as negotiations dragged from Monday into Tuesday and then into Tuesday night, USW sent out a text update to its members which managed to come off as both reassuring and as a thin-veiled threat to the oil companies: "Bargaining is moving along. Industry needs to close the gaps and end the strike or see it expand. Stay tough."
Talks started up again Wednesday and while neither side would say if negotiations will continue Thursday, there have been some rumblings that the two sides might come to an agreement soon.
Officially, USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock stated via email that she didn't know if talks would continue Thursday and had no word if a deal will be reached soon. However, later Wednesday evening USW issued a text message update on the talks. It was kind of wonderfully brief and to the point: "Bargaining is continuing. Policy committee traveling to Houston to be available to review any proposals. Time for the industry to bargain fair and safe deal."
Shell spokesman Cameron Yost would only confirm that face-to-face negotiations resumed again on Wednesday, answering our inquiries with the deft opaqueness we've come to both expect and enjoy from Shell reps. "Out of respect for the process, we will keep the details of the discussion at the bargaining table," Yost stated.
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While both sides are keeping what's going on behind those closed conference room doors at that mysterious unnamed location decidedly private, Lee Medley, president of USW District 13-1, stated that the fact the two sides are in the same room is a positive step. "More face-to-face work than in a long time, " he said.
And on the local front things have been relatively quiet on the picket lines at Shell Deer Park (which USW District 13-1 represents) and the other striking refineries, Medley said. Tensions were running high at the start of the strike with both the strikers and management accusing the other side of attempts at bullying and intimidation but as the strike has dragged on a calm has settled. The strikers have continued to walk 24-hour picket lines in front of the refineries while management, those who have crossed the picket line to go back to work (known to USW strikers as scabs) and the hired on "relief workers" have kept Shell Deer Park and the other refineries running.
Though Shell Deer Park announced last week that they were hiring "relief workers" to help run the refinery, Medley has repeatedly said that the jobs at Shell Deer Park and the other refineries are protected because he and his fellow union members are on strike for unfair labor practices. (If they were on strike over economic issues, like money for example, federal law wouldn't protect their jobs.) However, when asked about the jobs held by USW members on strike Shell spokesman Yost gave one of the best non-answer answers to be issued by a Shell spokesman thus far. "Under the National Labor Relations Act employees have the right to strike as well as to work which means that they are entitled to return at any time."
The one clear thing is that the end of the strike will most likely be as much of a process as the start of it was. If and when the national reps for USW and Shell reach an agreement on a national contract, the end of the strike will be negotiated into said contract, Medley said, so there will be a definite plan about how the whole thing is handled. (This just seems sensible considering there's bound to be awkwardness on both sides as many of the USW strikers have noted .) But it won't be any crazy royal-court-etiquette-type stuff. "[It's] just how we go back in. Orderly fashion, you know," Medley said.