Workers at ExxonMobil's Massive Baytown Plant (Almost) Went On Strike over safety
The folks over at Exxon Mobil's Baytown refinery were facing a possible Norma Rae situation last week when local United Steelworkers representatives threatened a strike if the Exxon people didn't put in the health and safety provisions they'd asked for in their contracts.
Local USW rep Rich "Hoot" Landry said they'd been pushing for these provisions since a worker was burned over 25 percent of his body out at the Baytown refinery in 2011, according to The Wall Street Journal.
As if that weren't enough to make those so inclined start pulling out their cardboard strike signs, the industrial world of Texas has given us all a lot to think about in recent weeks.The same day that 15 people were killed and half the little town of West was pretty much flattened by ammonia nitrate meeting fire, an explosion at the ExxonMobil Corp. refinery in Beaumont injured 12 people, one of whom later died from his injuries.
Interesting news in its own right -- and on any other day it was something that would probably have gotten a lot more attention -- but it also happened just as United Steelworkers union representatives were negotiating with Exxon officials for new contracts at the Baytown facility, the second largest refinery in the United States. The union reps wanted Exxon to add health and safety language to the contract -- health and safety regulations that they say are already in place at other Exxon refineries, including the one in Beaumont -- and they threatened a strike if they didn't get it.
There was also another "incident," a flash fire at Formosa Plastics at Point Comfort that injured 16 workers, sort of adding an awful kind of emphasis to the fact that people get up and don their coveralls to go to work every morning at places that handle a lot of dangerous stuff, the kind that can catch fire, explode and do serious damage to the average body.
"Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union..."
USW reps have been pushing for this added safety language since 2011, but maybe the recent incidents made them push harder. They went into this round of negotiations prepared to call a strike -- in our imagination this means the union guys actually place a call directly to Meryl Streep circa Silkwood and Sally Field circa Norma Rae -- that would potentially shut down one of the largest refineries in the United States.
Exxon officials balked at getting the health and safety stuff in during their first meetings, leading Landry to tell The Wall Street Journal they were seriously looking at a strike. But it all turned out all right in the end, and the reps made a deal last Friday.
Exxon agreed to add rules regulating how many days someone can work in a row and to add a process-safety position to the contract so there will be someone looking out for the way things are done to prevent accidents like the ones we've been seeing in recent weeks, according to the WSJ.
Even in the middle of threatening a strike, Landry said he was confident a strike would be avoided. For the moment it has been -- Exxon agreed to their demands and now the deal just has to be voted on by union members -- and plans for a strike have been held off until union members vote on May 15. But it's awfully interesting that union members were talking strike in the face of the recent explosions at West, Formosa and, you know, Exxon and all the attention that these incidents -- mainly West -- have drawn to government oversight and regulation in these setups.
So, no strike for now, but if they end up going for it after all, they should totally call Sally Field to give them a hand. Streep is great but whether Field is holding a cardboard sign or channeling her inner Mary Todd Lincoln, lady seems like the kind of woman who can get it done.
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.