Since the start of the United Steelworkers strike at the oil refineries, Katherine Rodriguez has been watching the developments and thinking of her father, Ray Gonzalez. "He would have loved this. He would have been out there on the picket line with them if he was still here," she says.
USW members have been on strike since February 1. Union reps have rejected at least seven contract offers from Shell and pulled more than 6,500 workers at 15 plants -- with about 5,000 coming from 12 oil refineries -- since the strike started. Locally, the strike began when the union pulled union workers out of LyondellBasell, Shell Deer Park and the Texas City refinery where Rodriguez's father was fatally injured more than a decade ago. While the two sides are reportedly butting heads over a variety of things -- including contractors and rules that make sure fatigued workers aren't stuck on the job -- it's the safety issues that hit closest to home for Rodriguez.
Her father was killed by burns sustained in an accident at the then-British Petroleum Texas City refinery in September 2004. Gonzalez lived in the hospital for weeks after the accident and for a long time, Rodriguez and her two sisters and their mother hoped that Gonzalez would pull through. But eventually his body began to fail and his organs started shutting down. The family was together with him at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston when they turned off all the machines.
After that, Rodriguez couldn't even stand to talk about what had happened to her father, but she started researching the industry that employed him for most of his adult life. Only then did she begin to understand what it was really like behind the refinery fence. While he never said a word in front of his daughters about the dangers and the near-misses that were a part of life at the Texas City refinery, Gonzalez would tell his wife about the burns and how careful workers had to be at the refinery, her mother later told her. "He kept that from us because he didn't want us to worry. If we had known we would have worried all the time," Rodriguez says now.
An accountant by trade, Rodriguez coped with her grief through research. She learned everything there was to know about how refineries worked and who the companies were answerable to if something went wrong. Rodriguez comforted herself with the thought that at least safety would improve at the refinery. Even in the dangerous world of oil refineries, deaths make the national news and trigger investigations led by USW, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board. Professionals would look at the accident that killed her father, figure out the cause and make sure it wouldn't happen again, she told herself.
But less than six months later, on March 23, 2005, there was a bigger explosion at the Texas City refinery. BP lawyers had been pushing back on a settlement agreement with the family and contesting the OSHA fines, but the day of the explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 100, they stopped fighting and paid.
Rodriguez has been obsessed with refinery safety since then. She's been lobbying for years to get better safety protocols in place and stricter enforcement by the federal government for injuries and deaths at refineries.Things have come a long way, but there are still issues, she says.
She couldn't attend the USW rally held at the Shell building in downtown Houston the first week of the strike, but her husband, Randy Rodriguez, took her father's picture and went to the rally to march for her and the family. Since then, she and her husband have taken their daughters to the local USW hall in Texas City to drop off food and see how else they can help -- the strikers aren't getting paid or receiving any benefits as long as the strike lasts, so USW halls are setting up food banks and other aid.
Rodriguez wants her daughters to see the picket lines and to understand what being part of a union means. Her dad was a lifelong union member. "People forget that this is happening, and that we live right next to these incredibly dangerous places. Stories like my father's are in the news one day and forgotten the next," she says. "My dad believed in unions, and he taught us to believe in unions. Unions are the only thing that stand a chance of keeping these workers safe."
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