Well, it looks like the first significant oil refinery strike in 35 years is finally beginning to wrap up. So far, oil companies have made agreements with local unions that will see union workers back on the job at two of the striking Texas refineries -- Shell Deer Park and the Motiva refinery in Port Arthur -- before the end of March.
The strike started on February 1 after the national arm of the United Steelworkers, representing about 30,000 oil refinery workers, and Royal Dutch Shell, negotiating for the oil companies, failed to reach a new national contract. From there, USW called out more than 6,000 workers at 15 plants, including 12 refineries that handle about one-fifth of the refinery work in the United States.
USW union members at Shell Deer Park, LyondellBasell in Pasadena and Marathon's Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City were a part of the first wave of workers called out on strike. As negotiations dragged on with USW and Shell butting heads over a variety of issues, including contract workers, safety issues and fatigue standards for workers, these local workers went without pay or health-care benefits. Since this was the first real oil refinery strike since 1980, a lot of people on both sides weren't prepared for what having a strike would really mean. After the exuberant first days when the USW District 13-1 hall in Pasadena was buzzing with excitement, people started tackling the grim reality of the strike. Local USW chapters quickly set up food banks and offered health-care coverage for workers and it was soon very clear, based on the men and women who would come in asking about the food and the assistance they'd heard about, that this was necessary.
Things got tense at all the local striking refineries. People would shout and throw things at the picket line walkers as they drove by, and Shell Deer Park eventually forced the picket line to stand on the sliver of land between the property line and the road. One woman from LyondellBasell ran into some of the company managers at the funeral viewing for a mutual acquaintance in the middle of the strike. They were walking out as she was walking out. "It was so awkward. This wasn't the place to get into it, so we all sort of nodded at each other and kept going. It's never going to be the same after this strike. Too much has happened."
Inside the refineries, management worked to keep the systems running -- no easy task when you're both lacking in people and dealing with complicated, volatile and aging systems that have quirks and tricks and have been known to explode. Meanwhile, the union workers walked picket lines outside the refineries. Relations quickly soured. Both sides filed complaints of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the other side of bullying and intimidation.
To make matters even more complicated, reports started circulating that some union members were crossing the picket lines at various striking refineries, including Shell Deer Park and LyondellBasell. Company officials maintained that they were simply allowing workers who asked to come back to work, but the union reps claimed many of the people were being pressured to return. About a month into the strike, Shell officials reported that about 20 percent of the 800 striking union members from Shell Deer Park had come back to work. About 50 of the 450 that walked out of LyondellBasell crossed the picket line, according to the local USW District 227.
On the national level, USW and Shell officials continued to negotiate but couldn't reach an agreement that would satisfy both parties. It's impossible to know what the situation was actually like when they did meet in undisclosed locations to talk, but in early March, Shell and USW announced with lots of fanfare that the two sides were once again going to start negotiating on the national contract pattern. The thing is, it turned out that these "talks" were very brief and held via teleconference, implying that even those at the very top were running low on patience.
However, the new deal, a four-year contract with pay raises and some vague assurances about the issues on contract workers, fatigue policy and safety, didn't actually end the strike. Each local USW union has had to meet with the local company people and work out a local contract based on the national pattern agreement. It's been even more tricky for the union members called out on strike since the striking refineries also have to work out their return-to-work agreements. Anyone who thought that the local negotiations for the striking refineries would be any less contentious than the fierce grappling for power that happened on the national level obviously wasn't paying attention.
Things seem to have wrapped up most easily for the striking workers over at the Port Arthur Motiva refinery, where USW called employees out on strike later in the game. The refinery, one of the largest in the country, is partially owned by Shell. The local USW members voted to accept their version of the four-year national pattern contract and the return to work agreement earlier this week, according to Shell spokesman Ray Fisher. He stated that they hope to have all the striking workers back on the job at Motiva by March 31.
While the reps from Shell Deer Park and USW 13-1 started holding meetings shortly after the national agreement was announced last Thursday, it took a week of talks to hammer out an agreement. The deal was approved last night, according to Fisher. He gave us a rundown via email as to where things stand at Shell Deer Park:
"With the new contract now in place, we will use a systematic and methodical approach to bring employees back to work. All hourly employees will receive a letter in the next few days with their individual details for returning to work in addition to information on participation in a mandatory orientation session. If a represented employee did not receive a letter by Monday, March 23, they should contact their Supervisor by Tuesday, March 24 to learn about return-to-work plans.
We look forward to all remaining employees returning to work, in a phased approach by the end of the month."
In short, the Shell Deer Park USW workers will be headed back to work shortly. Lee Medley, president of USW District 13-1, confirmed they'd worked out their contract and would be returning to work. "Huge relief," he said via text.
Meanwhile, the negotiations between LyondellBasell and USW District 227 have been more on the scrappy side of things. A federal mediator was brought in at LyondellBasell's request, according to Joshua Lege, of USW District 227, but he said the company walked out on negotiations last Saturday, telling the federal mediator that they needed a "cooling-off" period. Now negotiations are slated to begin again on Monday. Hopefully the two sides -- and that federal mediator who reportedly drove all night from Oklahoma to make the last round of negotiations -- will come away with an agreement this time around.
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LyondellBasell spokesman George Smalley wouldn't give any details on what's going on with the company and the local USW, but he issued this polite statement:
"LyondellBasell has negotiated diligently and in good faith with the USW from the beginning and we remain committed to negotiating in good faith for a fair and responsible contract. At this stage in the negotiating process it would be inappropriate to comment on or to characterize our interactions with the USW."
Over at Marathon's Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, things have reportedly been even more tricky. The union members from the Texas City refinery, also a part of USW District 13-1, were having trouble coming to an agreement on a local contract with Marathon Petroleum before the strike was called. (The local unions usually work out the basics of their local contracts with the companies months before the national contract negotiators start meeting. This year Shell Deer Park had its basic local contract agreement hammered out back in October, which was part of why USW calling them out on strike took many of the Shell Deer Park workers by surprise.) In fact, the guys hanging around the Pasadena hall for USW 13-1 all mentioned that the issues with Texas City were part of why USW went on strike in the first place.
There's no word on what is going on over at the Texas City refinery. USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock stated earlier this week that she isn't even sure if Marathon and the Texas union people are negotiating at all. We've put in request for comment with both the Texas City arm of USW District 13-1 and Marathon. We'll update as soon as we hear back.