USW Strike May Finally Actually End for Marathon Refinery Workers

USW protestors rally at the Shell building in downtown Houston on February 6.
USW protestors rally at the Shell building in downtown Houston on February 6.
Photo by Max Burkhalter

The striking oil refinery workers at Marathon's Galveston Bay Refinery have been "on the verge of a deal" with Marathon for months now, but now it's looking entirely possible that one of the last holdouts from the largest oil refinery strike in the past 35 years will finally get a new local contract, bringing the strike to a close.

It's been awhile since this whole thing started. The first walkouts for the national United Steelworkers strike happened on February 1, as the national contract came to an end with no new contract to replace it. USW officials and Royal Dutch Shell oil representatives, negotiating on behalf of the oil companies, couldn't agree on a new national contract so USW reps started pulling union members out on strike. Ultimately more than 6,500 workers at 15 plants — with about 5,000 coming from 12 oil refineries — walked off the job and onto the picket line over the course of the often tense negotiations and standoffs between bargainers from USW and Shell. 

Locally, the strike started when union workers were pulled out of LyondellBasell, Marathon's Texas City Refinery and Shell Deer Park, with both sides reportedly butting heads over safety issues, rules that make sure fatigued workers aren't stuck on the job, and contractors. After the national arm of USW and Shell agreed on a national contract pattern in March, the striking local unions had to negotiate local contracts based on the national pattern and return-to-work agreements to end the strike. Shell Deer Park negotiators were the first to work out a deal with the union members. Things were more contentious at LyondellBasell in Pasadena, but ultimately the company reps and the USW reps agreed on terms that let union employees come back to the refinery.

But more than 1,000 Marathon Galveston Bay employees have remained on strike all this time. The relations between Marathon officials and USW members were reportedly tense long before the strike, and things only got worse as the strike dragged on.  USW District 13-1 Vice President Larry Burchfield says he and other local union officials knew that Marathon reps had been unhappy with the local union contract since the company bought the refinery two years ago. "From day one there were some things about the contract they didn't like, and you could tell leading up to its expiration that there was going to be a local fight over this," he says.

Even though the national contract had been worked out, the two sides butted heads over the local contract, with USW members claiming  Marathon's offers were chipping away at the safety regulations put in place after the deadly 2005 refinery explosion (the refinery belonged to British Petroleum back then.) "From the 1980 strike to the 2015 strike, we've had 35 fatalities at Marathon Galveston Bay, and that hits home for everybody that works there, so when we got into conversations over health and safety with the company, there were things put in place because of those fatalities that we weren't giving up," Burchfield says.

The strike has been on for five months now, but none of more than 1,100 striking Marathon union members crossed the picket line to go back to work, Burchfield says. Some people got temporary jobs, some were recruited to other refineries or got construction work to help them pay the bills while Marathon and the local union tried to negotiate with each other. Those who found work paid other people to do their picket line shifts, and union members could apply to the strike fund to pay bills if necessary. Marathon officials came to the local bargaining table trying to dictate terms, making 36 demands that would have gutted their contract, Burchfield says.

But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. The Local 13-1 members at that facility will learn this Saturday about the tentative agreement and the return-to-work agreement negotiated by the union and the company. Members will vote on both agreements this Monday and Tuesday. "It's taken five months of being on strike, but we were able to come to common ground with the company over our health and safety concerns and to come to a tentative agreement that our members can support last Friday. This is the first agreement that the union committee actually supports," Burchfield says. "There's a different feel in the air about this one. It feels like this is finally about to be over."

While Marathon started out with 36 contract demands that the union opposed, this agreement has whittled away all but 16 of those demands, Burchfield says. Still, he says it would have been better if they'd been able to agree on a local contract without going on strike. "There's no real win to these kinds of disputes because these disputes cost our members money, and the company had to mobilize employees and training and housing to cover the jobs of the people on strike so it cost them, too. There's some bitterness associated with the strike, but when you look at the terms, I feel good that we are able to maintain those terms," he says. "Looking back already, it could have been handled a whole lot differently. Next time I hope we can come to terms without any hardship on either side, that we'll be able to sit down and actually listen to each other."

Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry sounded as cautiously optimistic as one can sound in an email statement about the latest agreement. "If the offer is approved by the membership, we look forward to returning our employees to work," Kheiry says. Considering these two parties have been at an impasse for five months now, we can't exactly blame him.

The voting that could finally bring the strike to a close ends Tuesday evening. 


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