USW and Shell Talked. Briefly.

Lee Medley and the USW District 13-1 union members outside of the USW Hall in Pasadena.
Lee Medley and the USW District 13-1 union members outside of the USW Hall in Pasadena.
Photo by Max burkhalter

Representatives from United Steelworkers International and Royal Dutch Shell were back at the bargaining table Wednesday and it seems they talked just long enough to decide they'll try this whole talking thing again next week.

That means the strike is definitely going on for another week, at least, which is rough news for those hoping it would be over by now.

The USW oil refinery strike, the first major oil refinery strike in 35 years, started February 1 and the USW members at Shell Deer Park, LyondellBasell and Marathon Texas City were some of the first called to walk out on strike by the national arm of USW. Since then USW has pulled out more than 6,000 workers at 15 plants across the country, including 12 refineries.

USW has been negotiating a national contract that the local union groups will use as guidelines for their contracts with the company. Shell is negotiating on behalf of the oil industry. They've been trying to hammer out a deal since January 21. So far, things haven't gone well.

Meanwhile, the tensions between the strikers and management have been ratcheting up. People have been crossing the picket line at Shell Deer Park since the second week of the strike. Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh says that 20 percent of the 800 union members have come back to work at Shell Deer Park. Lee Medley, president of USW District 13-1 that represents Shell workers, says that the number is closer to around 100. Either way, strikes depend on union members not crossing picket lines, as we've already noted, so this is a pretty big deal to the local union.

Shell officials posted an open letter on Monday informing workers that they are going to hire "relief workers" to get the refinery fully staffed again. According to Medley, this is an unfair labor practice strike, not an economic strike. This is an important differentiation because companies can replace workers in an economic strike, but they can't permanently replace the workers if the strike is over unfair labor practices. "We will have our jobs. They cannot replace us," Medley said via text. And yet, according to Shell, the relief workers are coming.

Just down the road at LyondellBasell, the company has gone so far as to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against USW District 13-227, which represents LyondellBasell employees. The complaint accuses union members of bullying and intimidating workers who are crossing picket to go back to work. One picket line walker admitted that things have been tense between the two sides. She had to attend a funeral last week for a coworker's family member and ran into LyondellBasell management at the door of the funeral home. "This isn't the way we wanted things to be," she said.

While all of this is going on, Shell officials and representatives from USW International held a phone meeting to try once again to agree on a contract. USW has rejected seven contract offers so far.

Shell released some of the details of the contracts they've offered when word got out that the two sides were going to start negotiating again. Shell officials claim that it's the contractors -- not safety concerns or even money -- that are the sticking point. The unions want to have more union members doing daily maintenance jobs at the refineries. In its last offer, Shell offered its employees -- who make an average of $37 per hour -- raises of 2 percent in 2015, 2 percent in 2016 and 2.5 percent in 2017, according to the release. Under its most recent proposal, Shell said it offered to renew current contributions to its medical plan, given an employer contribution rate of 80 percent.

But the union officials say that this strike is about safety and about wanting the people working in refineries to be properly trained to minimize the chance of accidents (refineries are so complicated and volatile that it's unlikely the risks will ever be eliminated entirely).

After Wednesday's teleconference, Shell issued a (very) brief statement:

"Shell and USW held discussions today and agreed to resume talks next week. While we continue running our business, we look forward to reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement with the USW."

Meanwhile USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock issued her own slightly more wordy statement:

"We discussed at-length our continuing concerns regarding safety and a process whereby the USW members could be assured of manageable hours of overtime and adequate staffing levels to insure safe conditions for our members, the operations and the surrounding communities. We further discussed our facility-maintenance concerns and the assignment of daily maintenance work to the bargaining unit and offered specific proposals on both those issues."

The two sides are reportedly set to meet again on Monday in Houston.

In the meantime, USW has scheduled another rally at One Shell Plaza in downtown Houston at 1 p.m. on Friday. Unless the two sides agree on a contract before then the streets will be ringing with chants and, we're betting, a verse or two of "We Shall Overcome." The Houston Police Department also turned out during the first rally held February 6. Fingers crossed they bring out the police horses one more time.

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