The national United Steelworkers oil refinery strike technically ended weeks ago, but the local union members at LyondellBasell and Marathon are still grappling with company officials over their local contracts.
The strike started back in February after Royal Dutch Shell officials failed to negotiate a national pattern contract that satisfied the national arm of the United Steelworkers, which ultimately called a strike. More than 6,000 workers from 15 plants, including 12 oil refineries, were called out on strike. Houston-area refinery workers from Shell Deer Park, LyondellBasell and Marathon's Galveston Refinery in Texas City were some of the first union members pulled out. They walked away from their paychecks and benefits, while USW national officials continued to struggle to make a deal with Shell.
From there, USW, negotiating for about 30,000 oil refinery workers, and Shell, negotiating for the oil companies, went on butting heads on a variety of issues, including contractors, fatigue standards and safety issues. It took more than a month to get the national contract -- the contract that all the local unions would model their local contracts on -- ironed out.
But anyone who thought that would be the most complicated part of the strike probably missed the fact that a national agreement meant that now the members of the local unions and the local company officials would have to sit down after weeks of animosity and picket lines and work out a local deal.
Most of the plants and refineries have made agreements, but local negotiations have been particularly rough between USW 227 and LyondellBasell, Joshua Lege, a LyondellBasell employee and a member of USW District 227, says. "This is the 10th week of the strike. Obviously other people have gone back to work, but we're still out," Lege says.
At this point, he and the other local union members are trying to stay hopeful that they'll reach an agreement soon, but the negotiation process has been discouraging. He says LyondellBasell is also trying to turn their unfair labor practices strike (the type of strike where the company has to give the strikers their jobs back) into an economic strike (the type of strike where jobs are not protected).
Everyday the terms keep changing, Lege says. For instance, one day company negotiators might say they'll hire more workers to ensure staff isn't overworked; the next day, company negotiators have changed their minds. "The local contract and the national package have been put on the table but [company officials] keep conditionally bargaining, and saying that we to accept the deal they're offering or we won't get anything," Lege says. "I don't foresee a deal this week, but we continue to negotiate and to hope that they will also be fair and negotiate with us."
Last week, negotiations were supposed to continue through Thursday, but Lege says LyondellBasell officials asked to postpone the talks until after the holiday weekend. Now they are slated to meet about 9 a.m. this morning.
We've requested a comment on this from LyondellBasell spokesman George Smalley. He politely referred us to a statement issued by LyondellBasell executive vice president Kevin Brown on April 1, where Brown stated that "despite the company's best efforts, little progress has been made." That was all Smalley had to say.
Meanwhile, things are even more confusing over at Marathon. Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry stated that the local union and Marathon are working things out. "A tentative agreement has been reached at our Texas City refinery that will go to the membership for ratification early this week," Kheiry told us via email.
However, Sonny Sanders, USW sub-district director, says there's no "tentative deal" as of right now. "Not true. No deal," Sanders stated via text. But USW national spokeswoman Lynne Hancock says that Marathon has offered a deal and the Marathon members of USW District 13-1 are preparing a counter-offer to give to the company officials.
So it seems, according to Hancock, that there's a counter-offer in the works, which is still quite a bit of progress between these two particular parties. Tensions have been simmering between the local Marathon officials and the members of USW District 13-1 since long before the start of the strike, according to the word around the union halls.
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While some locals, like Shell Deer Park arm of USW District 13-1, had their local contracts banged out months ago with the local arms of the companies, District 13-1 has been butting heads with Marathon for months. Hancock says that the local issues have been holding up an agreement at both LyondellBasell and especially at Marathon. "At Marathon, the local is working to resolve health and safety and a number of other issues as well. The company has its issues too," Hancock stated via email.
Once Marathon and USW do finally agree on a contract the local union will vote on it, and if it's approved they'll have to negotiate again to figure out when the striking employees will come back to work. Kheiry said he couldn't offer any timeline for that process.
Hancock pointed out that despite what the movies would imply, ending a strike is usually a drawn-out process. All of the picket line walkers don't simply drop their picket line signs and walk back into work. "It is normal to have some lingering sites in the National Oil Bargaining Program. Last go round, the Tesoro locals finished their bargaining five to six months later."
So this thing isn't over yet, and history and history is telling us - the way that history so often tends to do - that there's no guarantee as to when the strike will finally truly end.