Crossing the Line: Money, Safety, Power - What Makes a Union Strike at a Bad Time for Oil and Gas?

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He had only an hour's notice. Lee Medley, local president of USW District 13-1, got the call from the national representatives of the United Steelworkers at 11 p.m. on January 31. There was no new contract, and he was going to have to lead 800 workers from Shell Deer Park out on strike. Nobody -- not the local negotiators, the Shell administrators, the workers or the president of the local United Steelworkers union, Medley himself -- thought it would happen.

As the weight of what he was about to do sank in, he pulled out his phone and texted his wife of more than 30 years, Connie Medley.

"There's no new contract. I have to take them out."

Connie had been waiting up. She replied: "You're the right man for this job. I love you. I have faith in you. Don't worry, we'll be fine."

Medley read the message, sucked in a deep breath and went to the managers to tell them what he was about to do.

There hadn't been an oil-worker strike in 35 years, not since the heyday of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union in 1980. The past few years have been good for U.S. refineries, which are booming because of a glut of crude oil from the U.S. shale plays. But in the past six months, oil prices have dropped almost 50 percent, the sharpest decline since the Great Recession in 2008.

So it seemed particularly poor timing even to think about going out on strike as workers in the industry have been laid off in droves.

Medley maintains that this is about safety. And he has a point. Working at an oil refinery is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. From 2003 to 2010, 823 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job -- a fatality rate seven times greater than the rate for all U.S. industries, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Refinery systems are complicated and volatile, and any oversight can lead to an accident or death. Some accidents are talked about across the country, like the Phillips explosion that killed 23 people in 1989, the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 and the Tesoro explosion in Washington state that killed seven in 2010. But for every fatal accident that garners national attention, there are dozens that are never discussed outside the refineries.

Adding to the danger is the age of the refineries in Texas and around the country. While existing facilities have been rebuilt, revamped and expanded repeatedly over the years, there hasn't been a new complex refinery built in the United States since the late 1970s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Medley knows this firsthand. In the 1980s, after about a decade on the job, he was working high up on a scaffold when he and a coworker opened a pipe that was supposed to be empty. Covered in naphtha, a flammable mix of hydrocarbons, and stranded hundreds of feet in the air, they were helpless. The world was reduced to the chemicals on Medley's skin and the chance that any errant spark would ignite him, setting his body blazing like a torch. In his choked panic, Medley thought of his wife and his children, and a prayer ricocheted through his mind. "Please, God, no. Please don't let me burn."

The workers say they cope with the risks by tamping down the fear. "You push it down and try not to think about it. You turn your back on the wrong thing, and it could kill you," Shell Deer Park operator John Hall says. But the reality of their precarious world had a way of snapping into focus at unexpected moments.

In the 1990s, there was a complex-wide crash at Shell Deer Park. Boilers went down, instruments failed and Hall and his coworkers struggled to keep their unit running. Somehow, hydrocarbons leaked into a line that was venting steam. Hall walked through the steam cloud and was gassed with 27 different kinds of chemicals. The pain was bad enough, but he started having seizures and lost control of his body. The seizures didn't stop for weeks. "I took it for granted. I thought it was just steam and wouldn't hurt me. I was wrong," he says now.

Still, despite all this history, going into the national contract negotiations on January 21, both the national branch of the United Steelworkers and the Shell officials negotiating on behalf of the oil companies seemed to think a deal would be hammered out quickly. At least that was the word going around the USW District 13-1 union hall in Pasadena, located just down the street from the massive metal labyrinth of the 1,500-acre Shell Deer Park refinery.

But negotiations faltered as the union and Shell representatives butted heads over USW demands for higher wages, better benefits and improved safety policy. The union accused Shell and other oil companies of overworking union employees and understaffing the refineries to save money and increase profits. Union officials have stated that they want to change the fatigue policy -- designed to prevent workers from continuing on the job when they are tired -- to better protect workers and have pushed hard to get the oil companies to stop hiring contractors in favor of union members.

Medley is a fourth-generation pipefitter and union member, but he'd never been through a strike. The national arm of the USW had been clear in its instructions -- he would be ordering a walkout of the 800 union members working at Shell Deer Park along with USW members at LyondellBasell, Marathon's Texas City refinery and a handful of refineries in California. He would be asking men and women he'd known for decades to walk away from their jobs, their paychecks and their benefits because they belonged to the union.

That night, Rudy Falcon, a Shell Deer Park operations maintenance worker, was on break in the cafeteria. Shell Deer Park was built in 1929, and expanded in the 1940s to handle more complicated refining processes. The refinery runs 24 hours a day, and it looks like a glittering, sleepless city. He and the other guys were working on a turnaround, heavy-duty maintenance for one of the refinery units. Things were running smoothly, and the cafeteria was serving shrimp tacos.

As the clock on the break-room wall crept past 11:30 p.m., Falcon noticed his supervisor had gone quiet. Usually he was right in there with the other guys, talking and telling jokes; this time his face was settling into tense lines. They were all back working on the unit when the supervisor stopped, took a phone call and then called everyone together. "I'm sorry, guys. You're on strike. Finish up what you're doing. I'm going to have to escort you out," the supervisor told them.

Falcon walked out the door with his co-workers -- a throng of red-jumpsuited figures marching out under the copper refinery lights toward the gate. "I looked around and I couldn't believe it," he says now. "It was strange to see us all dressed alike and leaving. Scary, but it really felt like I was part of something."

Since February 1, more than 6,000 workers at 15 plants, including 12 refineries, across the country have walked out on strike, the first major oil refinery strike since 1980. While some observers have accused USW members of going on strike over money, USW representatives maintain that this action is about safety -- they want better working hours, better training and fewer contractors working at the refineries. "They've only put money on the table. They think that money will buy their way out of it because that's what they're used to doing," Ben Lilienfeld, subdistrict director of the USW, says. "Employers don't give you anything out of the goodness of their hearts. You have to negotiate; you have to fight for it."

Oil industry officials counter that the union called the strike in a bid for power. Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said in an issued statement that the USW is the problem. "We're seeing little evidence that the USW's leaders are interested in a meaningful settlement any time in the foreseeable future," he states. "The central issue standing in the way of a settlement is not safety or fatigue, nor is it even about health care or wages, as the union claims. Those things are important to all of us, and it's important to share that we are engaged in productive negotiations regarding each of these issues. The central issue of the USW's national leaders is their continued demand that Shell replace routine maintenance workers with USW-represented employees."

Adding another component to the mix is the fact that the USW is at odds with some of its fellow unions over contractors. USW leaders were railing against contractors to the point that Sean McGarvey, president of the North America's Building Trades Unions, began sending letters out to fellow trade union presidents expressing his organization's outrage over USW comments on contractors, since many trade union contractors subcontract at -refineries.

Ed Hirs, a professor of energy economics at the University of Houston, says that safety is always an issue at refineries because they are dangerous places to work, but strikes are never just about safety. "That's not what this strike is really about, though. It's about money. It always is when it comes down to it."

The truth, as is so often the case, lies somewhere in the middle of all this. There has always been a culture clash between management and the men and women who actually keep the refineries running. In this case, things are so heated that it's almost impossible to sort out the real issues from the bargaining chips.

Since the start of the strike, union members have been manning thin picket lines at LyondellBasell, the Marathon Texas City refinery and Shell Deer Park, the first Houston-area refineries put on strike. They're out in the rain and the cold, they smile when people drive by honking their horns in support and they shrug it off when someone throws a soda can or screams "Get a job!"

"It's my union," Hall says. "They supported me, so I'm supporting them. I don't have to agree with everything. I agree enough; that's enough."

Less than a week after walking off the job, more than 100 USW members gathered in downtown Houston on February 6 to hold a rally outside Shell offices. Medley showed up late, but Jeff Lewis, USW vice-chairman for Shell Chemical at Deer Park, equipped with a megaphone and a USW hard hat, led the way as the protesters made steady laps around Shell's building while Houston police officers gathered in clumps to watch.

People held up pictures of loved ones killed in refinery explosions. One man plucked at a banjo, strumming and singing as he walked. Everyone was dressed in USW gear. Security guards blocked the entrances to the Shell building, but Shell employees, men and women in suits, stood in the marbled lobby peering past the guards to watch the spectacle. Lewis led the crowd as they chanted about a fair contract and safety.

Back at the USW District 13-1 hall, a long, skinny building whose walls are covered with lots of old union photos, the mood was still buoyant those first few days of the strike. Many of the conference rooms and offices are cold and covered in dust, as if they haven't been used in years, and only certain rooms get heated enough to be comfortable. The men and women on the picket line come over to the hall on breaks to warm up during the worst of the weather -- there are days when it's in the 30s and 40s and sleeting -- but they keep at least one person at each refinery gate 24 hours a day.

In Medley's office, a busy place in which the walls are crammed with pictures and every available surface is stacked with papers and folders, the heat was blasting. Medley's lunch sat forgotten on his desk. He was talking strategy with a national union official. Every time he left his office, he was surrounded by at least a half dozen people with urgent problems. Tall, sturdy-looking young men stood in the doorway of the union hall kitchen, USW caps in hand. Whenever Medley appeared, they darted forward, shaking his hand and pulling him aside to ask about those free diapers, the free baby food and groceries they'd heard about. With no paycheck coming in, the kids have got to eat, the workers have got to bring home something, they said. Medley directed them to the people in charge of supplies, talking in soft tones before finishing it off with claps on the back and firm handshakes.

One morning an entire crew of pipefitters crammed into his office to talk about the strike. Nobody knew what was being said behind that office door, but voices rose to the point they could be heard in the outer hallway, and after more than an hour, the workers left the room looking grim. "Some of these guys didn't understand what they were in for with the strike. They're young, they didn't know and they're upset," an older man explained when he ducked out of the meeting to grab a cup of coffee.

The moment Medley appeared in the main hall, a tall woman poked her head out of the designated strike room -- an ancient conference room with a bank of phones on a long table piled with papers and USW strike T‑shirts -- and rattled off questions Medley had returned from leave for heart problems when the strike was called. His doctor allowed him to go back to work, but with strict orders to avoid stress and get plenty of sleep. Despite the orders, he hadn't slept more than three hours a night in weeks, and the few times he left the union hall, he'd been glued to his phone. Lewis acted as Medley's second-in-command most days.

Even as Medley turned to go back to his office, the questions kept coming. What should they tell people calling in asking how to donate? Should they be holding daily meetings? How were the national contract negotiations going? Lewis stepped in when Medley gave him a look, and started telling every-one what to do. Medley retreated back to his wood-paneled office, gray-faced. Hundreds of people had walked away from their jobs because he told them to.

Medley learned early on that the job could be dangerous. There were only a few refineries along the Gulf Coast before Spindletop was discovered in Beaumont in 1901, but the world wars and the sudden demand for a steady supply of oil brought more industrial development. By the time Medley was born, the Gulf Coast was lined with massive, aging constructions of steel and metal pipes designed to convert every aspect of slick crude oil into products. In Pasadena, Deer Park, La Porte, Port Arthur and Texas City, the refineries were just an accepted part of the landscape.

When Medley was a kid, his father was crushed against a fire wall in a refinery accident. He survived but spent 18 months in bed recovering. Then an uncle got his face smashed with a chain. When Medley was in high school in the 1970s, his older cousin Vince was already working at a refinery, making good money. Something went wrong one day and Vince got burned. The burns didn't kill him, but he spent more than a year wrapped in bandages, enduring scrapings and surgeries, knowing he was scarred for life. Still, Vince went back to refinery work as soon as he was healed, but he didn't last long. "The alarms got to him. He finally went back to school and got a job in a bank. He couldn't stand it," Medley says.

Medley signed on as a union refinery worker shortly after graduating high school. He'd met Connie at a chicken barn dance in Texas City when he was 19, and this was a job he could support a wife on without a college degree. "You don't know what it's really like until you get in there. When I went in, it was a macho field. We didn't wear safety belts; we slid out of the racks. I saw people die. I got injured a few times. The old-timers were missing fingers and eyes, and that was just the way things were."

Now there's a new factor in all of this: the contractors. For years, the oil workers union had a firm grasp on power in the refineries. They could pull out all their workers and force a refinery to shut down if the suits across the table, the managers with their college degrees, didn't give them what they wanted. The last big oil strike, in 1980, saw people on the picket lines for three months, and the big issues included a dental plan and how vacation time was controlled.

When companies set out to weaken the unions decades ago, they used contractors to do it. Management started hiring contractors in the 1950s and updating existing refineries with technology that allowed the facilities to keep running with fewer workers. Contractors are cheaper for companies because they don't have to be paid benefits and there's less liability if something goes wrong.

Ray Marshall, former U.S. secretary of labor under Jimmy Carter, started out studying how labor unions developed in the South and how they were subsequently undermined by oil companies. Marshall was doing research at a plant one time when he heard a loud explosion. "The manager saw it out the window and went to find out what was going on. He came back and said not to worry, that it wasn't any of [the company] people," Marshall says. "What we have now is a situation where contractors are not only not trained enough in health and safety, some aren't even trained in the English language. One of those explosions in the 1980s happened because a contractor didn't read English and thought he was closing a valve he was actually opening."

Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said in a statement that the use of contractors allows Shell and other companies to maintain flexible hiring practices so that they don't have to retain workers needed only during certain maintenance cycles and can reduce the number of contract workers whenever the economy tanks. Without contractors, there would be more serious and permanent layoffs of union jobs, he stated.

However, union representatives say that contractors are not as well trained and don't know enough about the systems they work on to protect themselves and those working around them. The union points to the most recent Gulf Coast refinery disasters, the 2005 explosion of the then-British Petroleum Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers, all of them contractors; the BP oil spill; and the fire at ExxonMobil's Beaumont refinery in 2013 that killed two workers and injured 12, all contractors.

Fisher says that contractors receive exactly the same training as union workers.

Hall, who's worked on the same unit at Shell Deer Park for more than 30 years, says he loves his job. He can tell just by listening to sounds and the way the floor vibrates if the unit is running properly. "It talks to you. Different equipment makes different noises; there are different smells, vibrations. You have to use all your senses," he says. "That's the hardest part of the job, troubleshooting, since it's always something different."

"I'm a console operator now, and being responsible for all of those people outside working for me is a lot. If I mess up, I could kill them and I'd have to live with it. I know their families. I know them. That's the biggest thing. We all feel that."

Hall started out in the late 1970s, and as he worked his way up, he saw both contractors and union workers injured or killed on the job. "I was a contractor a lot of those years. I've seen a lot of people hurt, a lot of people gassed. I've seen a lot of people die. It's not a good feeling. You have to have a lot of respect for what you're working with," he says. "This thing is a monster. It's quiet 99 percent of the time, but it only takes one time to blow up."

Most of the accidents that happen aren't the dramatic kind. One Shell Deer Park employee, Marsha Burk, was making inspection rounds in December 2012 when the toe of her boot caught on some wooden matting, causing her to trip. It was before dawn and the area she was working in was noisy and dimly lit, and she didn't have a radio because there weren't enough radios for every employee, she says. Burk was taken to the hospital, but says that Shell's doctor insisted she had suffered from a seizure that caused her fall.

Burk's own doctor later told her that X‑rays showed she'd broken bones in her left wrist and right knee when she fell. She was never treated for those injuries and still walks with a limp. She can't walk the picket line because of her leg, but she's hoping the company doctor will finally clear her to go back to work once the strike ends. "I already lost my house because I couldn't make the payments on reduced pay," she says. "All I want is to get back to work."

Monique Bryant was working on a unit one day in 2013, doing routine maintenance on a line. Her supervisor was training her on the process of cleaning the line when Monique was blasted in the face with caustic materials. She rushed to the safety showers and doused herself in water repeatedly before Shell's medical team arrived, saving herself from chemical burns. The chemicals got into her nose and burned away the tiny hairs inside it, causing allergies, but that was the worst of it. "I learned that day. I trusted my equipment. I trusted the system. You can't do that."

Within oil refineries, technology has also cut into the union's impact. Joe Pratt, a professor of energy history at the University of Houston, grew up in Texas City, getting his first job at 15 working alongside his father in a refinery. Back then, refineries needed massive numbers of people to run them. Technological improvements have helped with safety, but refineries still need skilled workers, Pratt says. "We're a lot better than we used to be, but we're still dealing with an industry whose heart and soul is oil and gas under intense heat and pressure. We've made a lot of improvements, but it's dangerous," Pratt says.

Pratt took one of his classes on a refinery tour a few years ago. There were fewer people all around, but he was shocked when he walked into the control room. Where it used to take at least a dozen workers to ensure that everything was running properly, that contingent had been replaced by a few men and some computers.

It's unclear whether strikes are even an effective means of forcing negotiations anymore. In 1937, the year the National Labor Relations Act was declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, unions staged more than 2,000 strikes.

Back then, labor strikes weren't even focused on safety issues because workers were still struggling to secure basic things like paid vacation, health benefits and reasonable working hours, Pratt says. The big refineries started going up along the Houston Ship Channel because it was a good location to send Texas oil during the boom. The entire process sped up after World War I, and World War II made it clear that national security depended on control of a steady supply of crude oil. It made sense for a lot of the men coming back from WWII to seek work at the refineries.

Oil workers haven't solidly won a strike since the late 1950s, Pratt says. Many labor unions have collapsed in recent decades because they've lost support and don't have the ability to win strikes. The USW is powerful, but a defeat could be bad for the local USW unions.

"It's not going to break the steelworkers. They're still very strong. It might have broken the OCAW, but the steelworkers are a strong union and they've been moving into non-steel areas like oil and chemicals for a while now. They'll organize anybody they can represent," Marshall says. "It will be difficult for the local workers if they lose the strike, and it will weaken the concept of the union wherever they lose."

The mood in the union hall had shifted by late February. The giddiness that suffused the first days of the strike had been replaced by a grim determination and gallows humor. On Friday, February 13, Shell officials pushed the picket-line walkers off company property with the help of Harris County Sheriff's deputies and erected a temporary fence to keep the strikers from blocking the company gates.

Word whipped through the union that some of its members -- scabs -- were getting calls from Shell or were calling Shell asking if they could go back to work. With the picket line reduced to huddling on a few square feet of leeway on the edge of the road, those workers could drive onto the property without having to look their fellow union members in the eye.

The USW has rejected at least seven contract offers from Shell. After the last round of negotiations ended without a deal, the union issued a statement saying it had negotiated in good faith and was disappointed that Shell refused to make a deal. Shell and the other oil companies fired back with the same complaint.

Around the country, companies have been taking an aggressive approach to breaking the strike. LyondellBasell posted an open letter on February 18 offering to let its union workers return to their jobs if they so chose. British Petroleum has made similar offers to its employees. Word has spread that the Exxon Beaumont refinery has issued an offer to its USW employees: Any USW member who signs a five-year contract will receive a $4,500 signing bonus. It's a smart move, one union member noted, since the contract will give the refinery stability and secure it against the risk of strikes during planned expansions that will make it one of the largest refineries in the country, while also taking it completely out of the USW contract negotiation cycle.

The strikers were stunned the day Shell officials moved them off of refinery property. "It's like being kicked out of your own home. That's how we feel about that place," Hall explained. Shell brought out local law enforcement to usher the picket line off the property. Then the company erected a temporary fence and removed the supplies and USW signs the strikers had put up.

Medley found out on February 13 that union members were crossing the picket line to go back to work at Shell Deer Park. He and the picket-line walkers have been keeping count of who has turned scab -- at least 50 so far. "It's all been the ones I expected so far. These are the times that bring out everything in people; some people are strong and you find out that some are weak. These scabs are the free riders, ones who didn't pay their union dues in the first place," he says.

On February 23, three picket-line walkers were arrested on the charge of obstructing traffic on the highway. "I was out there in the '80 strike, and it wasn't anything like this," says Cloy Gilbert, one of the men arrested. "When the strike ended, we went back into the refinery fine. There wasn't animosity like this."

On February 24, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation filed an unfair labor practice charge with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, accusing USW District 13-1 of bullying and intimidating those workers (150 of them by the foundation's count) who crossed the picket line.

Medley didn't comment on the accusations, but he had previously made clear his feelings about scabs. Every person who crosses that line whittles away at the union's strength. Medley locks his jaw and narrows his eyes when he talks about the scabs. As union members, they'll still benefit from whatever contract is finally agreed upon between the USW and the oil companies, but they won't have suffered along with the other union members, and the weakness hurts the union at the bargaining table.

"They're dead to me. I won't know their names; I won't acknowledge them. I won't even go to their funerals now because they're already dead to me."

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