USW Locals Are Still in Negotiations to End the Oil Refinery Strike
Lee Medley and the USW District 13-1 union members outside of the USW Hall in Pasadena.
Photo by Max Burkhalter
Even though representatives from the national arm of the United Steelworkers and Royal Dutch Shell reached a tentative deal last Thursday, the strike is still dragging on.
Why? Well, because the national deal brokered by USW, negotiating on behalf of about 30,000 oil refinery workers, and Shell, working on behalf of the oil companies, is simply a pattern agreement that local unions base their contracts on. In this case, the initial four-year deal has pay increases and an agreement (still unspecified) to look into safety concerns and the fatigue rules that govern workers. From there the local reps for both the companies and USW still have to work out how to implement the national agreements for their local contracts along with the details for their return-to-work deals.
Those may sound like pretty basic things, but keep in mind that these groups now trying to work together have spent more than a month on opposite sides of picket lines.
The strike started on February 1 with just a few refineries in Texas and California, including Shell Deer Park, LyondellBasell and Marathon's Texas City refinery in the Houston area. But that was just the beginning for the first significant oil refinery strike in 35 years. As USW and Shell butted heads over details of a national contract -- USW rejected at least seven contract offers before agreeing to this one -- union leaders expanded the strike to include more than 6,000 workers at 15 plants, including 12 refineries, across the country.
Around here initially everyone seemed pretty calm, but tensions increased and tempers flared on both sides as the strike continued. Both union members and companies were filing complaints of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, each accusing the other side of bullying and intimidation. Still, at Shell Deer Park the strikers tried to keep their sense of humor.
One guy, a massive man nicknamed "Pig", showed up to walk picket in nothing but a pair of shorts. He was so large and the shorts were so small that he looked naked to the casual observer, Lee Medley, president of USW District 13-1, said. Another time Pig took up his post at one of the gates where strikers are only allowed to observe who goes in and out of the refinery (the rules governing the details of picketing are more complex than you'd think). Shell Deer Park security officers noticed this very large man settled just outside of Shell's property lines. Eventually they sent someone over to find out what he was doing. According to Medley, Pig held up a sign with the word "Observer" scrawled across it. "I'm observing!"
The striking union members have been going without paychecks or healthcare benefits -- aside from what USW provides -- for weeks now. Meanwhile, the non-union management has been stuck with the task of making sure the refineries stay up and running without catching fire or blowing up (and refineries are delicate, volatile contraptions so that's a lot harder than it sounds.) Not the best setup on either side to get together and do the compromising necessary to make these deals.
USW District 13-1 is still talking with Shell Deer Park reps to work out the details that will allow the striking employees to come back to work. So far Medley has only confirmed that the the two sides are meeting today.
Things are more complicated at LyondellBasell, located just down the road from Shell Deer Park. Joshua Lege, a USW 227 coordinator and LyondellBasell employee, says he and the other members of USW District 227 were surprised that the national contract was for four years, but pleased with the contract overall. "It's what we were looking for," he says. "A lot of it moves us forward." Still, the two sides are working on a local contract and return-to-work deal but haven't reached an agreement yet, Jimmy Easter, an officer with USW District 227-1, says.
Representatives from USW District 227 and LyondellBasell were in the middle of negotiating on Saturday when the company officials got up and left the room, Lege says. At the request of the company a federal mediator has been involved in the local negotiations from the start. Everyone assumed they were taking a break until the federal mediator came back and told the USW local reps that LyondellBasell's people were leaving and said they needed a "cooling off" period, Lege says.
"We're cooled. We've been cooled down for the last 40 or 50 days on strike, and for the first 30 they wouldn't talk to us at all," Lege says. "This is really turning into a pressure cooker because they won't negotiate with us. They honestly want to break us. They aren't a union company and they don't want a union out there and we believe they're afraid some other sites will start organizing if we get a fair contract here."
Company officials told the local USW representatives on Saturday that they would call when they were ready to meet again, Easter says. "We don't know when the company will [be] calling us back," Easter stated via text.
LyondellBasell's response to us was almost on the level of a Shell response, in that it managed to come across as benign while revealing nothing about the current situation at LyondellBasell in Pasadena. "LyondellBasell has negotiated diligently and in good faith with the USW from the beginning and we remain committed to negotiating in good faith for a fair and responsible contract," LyondellBasell spokesman George Smalley stated.
Meanwhile, Marathon's Texas City plant is nowhere near a local deal, to the point that a federal negotiator has been brought in to help work things out, according to Reuters. USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock says that she's not sure if Marathon has even presented the national pattern agreement to the local USW group, also District 13-1.
It's not entirely a surprise that things are rough with the Marathon talks. While some local unions, like the Shell Deer Park arm of District 13-1, actually worked out most of the details on local contracts months ago, Marathon and the Texas City union workers were at odds going into the strike, something noted by Medley and every other local union rep we've talked with over the past few weeks. USW is laying the current holdup at the company's door. "The company refuses to offer the pattern unencumbered," W.E. Sanders, sub-director for USW District 13, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, explained to Reuters. "The company clearly knows its obligations under the pattern."
We've requested comment from Marathon and we'll add in their take on this if and when they get back to us.
Motiva's Port Arthur refinery, partially owned by Shell, is the closest to reaching an agreement, according to Hancock. At this point Hancock stated that she doesn't know if any of the 15 plants and refineries on strike have made any deals or how long it will be before strikers start going back to work.
Meanwhile, USW is, of course, touting the national contract as a victory. "USW is happy about resolving the national agreement, and is satisfied with the terms of the pattern agreement," Hancock stated. She acknowledged that contracts are usually only three years long, but claimed that even the four-year contract is a good thing for USW workers because having an extra year will help them implement the terms of the agreement. (Keep in mind that ExxonMobil's Beaumont refinery was offering union workers a $4,500 bonus to sign a five-year contract.)
And as far as Shell is concerned, after weeks of negotiations they've got a deal and they're happy about it and looking forward to seeing Shell union employees back on the job at their facilities, including Shell Deer Park and the Port Arthur Motiva refinery, according to our favorite Shell spokesman, the enigmatic and always succinct and opaque Ray Fisher. "We expect to bring employees back in the near future using a systematic and methodical approach. We will do so with care and respect in order to move forward together," he stated.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.