The USW Strike Still Isn't Over at LyondellBasell and Marathon

The national United Steelworkers strike technically ended more than two weeks ago when Royal Dutch Shell and the international arm of the United Steelworkers finally hammered out a pattern contract agreement that would last for four years. But even though most of the union members will be back on the job by April 1, workers at Marathon's Texas City Refinery and the LyondellBasell refinery in Pasadena are still without local contracts, and thus are still on strike.

The whole USW strike started on February 1 after Shell, negotiating on behalf of the oil companies, and USW, negotiating on behalf of more than 30,000 oil refinery union members, failed to agree on a contract. When midnight came without a new agreement -- the two sides were grappling over safety concerns, fatigue regulations and whether some work done by contractors should be given to union employees instead -- Shell Deer Park, LyondellBasell in Pasadena and Marathon's Texas City refinery were among the first refineries called out on strike.

Over the following weeks, as the two sides continued to fail to come to an agreement, more than 6,000 USW workers at 15 plants (including 12 refineries that manufacture about a fifth of the nation's oil) walked away from their jobs, their paychecks and their benefits to go on strike, the first major oil refinery strike in 35 years.

While they waited for Shell and USW to work out a deal, the strikers took turns walking the picket line in front of the refineries. The whole thing started out oddly cheerful, but things soon grew tense as the strike dragged on through February and into March. Some union members gave in, crossed the picket line and went back to work. Others did not, and Lee Medley, the local president for USW District 11-1, made it clear that he and his union members would stick the strike out until they got what they wanted. In the meantime, they got a ton of media attention and relations between the people on strike and the company managers grew increasingly strained at Shell Deer Park.

But despite all of the tension, shortly after Shell and USW announced they'd agreed on a national contract, the local unions had to sit down with local company officials to put together a local contract, a tricky thing to do after they'd spent weeks in opposition to each other. Still, the officials from Shell Deer Park and USW District 13-1 hammered out the details on a local contract relatively quickly. The same went for the union workers at the massive Motiva refinery in Port Arthur (partially owned by Shell) and for most of the refineries called out on strike across the country. Medley and the other Shell Deer Park workers started going back to work on Monday.

However, the strike is still on at LyondellBasell and Marathon. LyondellBasell has been meeting with representatives from USW District 227 since shortly after the national contract was announced, but the two sides haven't made a deal, Joshua Lege, a LyondellBasell employee and USW 227 coordinator, says. Since the start of their local negotiations, LyondellBasell has insisted on the presence of a federal negotiator, but it looks like the federal negotiator hasn't made striking a deal any easier. At one point, the LyondellBasell representatives walked out of a Saturday meeting so abruptly that the local USW reps thought they were just taking a break. They only realized the company representatives were walking out of the meeting, citing the need for a "cooling-off" period, when the federal negotiator came back and told them.

Now they're back at the table as of Monday and are scheduled to meet through Wednesday, Lege says. So far there's no end in sight. "No deal at all. We still have less than 45 people scabbing [and] over 400 people holding the line," Lege said via email.

An update issued to USW 227 members further detailed their stance on things, noting that their safety record last year was flawless with zero in-house recorded accidents and that the company is making money:

"We have also played a key role in the record setting profits seen this last year. We are running this refinery better today than ever. And what do we get for it? What do we want for this? Nothing. We are not greedy. A roll over from the last contract is all we expect. To try and punish the very group that puts their lives on the line every day to help LyondellBasell reach these milestones is not only unconscionable, but an insult and a slap in the face."

LyondellBasell spokesman George Smalley told us the same thing he's been telling us all along. "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," Smalley said.

There's apparently been even less progress over at Marathon's Galveston Refinery in Texas City. Marathon and the local USW, also District 11-1 out of Texas City, were butting heads over safety concerns and contract negotiations long before the start of the strike. Most local unions had already made basic contract agreements with the local company representatives long before Shell and USW started negotiating the national contract, (Shell Deer Park and USW 13-1 had agreed on a contract back in October, for example), but that wasn't the case at Marathon. In fact, the word around the USW hall that represents Shell Deer Park workers was that the problems between Marathon and the local USW were part of why the national arm of USW had called a strike in the first place.

USW spokeswoman Lynne Hancock said the members of the local USW told her there hasn't been any progress with Marathon. Last week the local USW marked the anniversary of the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 150 with a candlelight vigil. They erected crosses in memory of those killed on the refinery property, but the crosses were picked up by company management, a move that led Sonny Sanders, USW sub-district director, to send an open letter to Marathon's human resources manager, David Malone. Sanders asked that the crosses be returned so that they can set them up at the local Texas City USW hall. Still, despite the obvious tension, the two sides have been trying to negotiate a contract to end the strike.

"Marathon has committed to meet and bargain with us today and tomorrow," Sanders told us on Monday. "We are prepared to continue bargain[ing] the remainder of the week and through the holiday weekend, but we are unsure as to the company's intentions."

Marathon would only admit that it was meeting with USW. "We continue to meet with the union to negotiate on local issues at our USW-represented facilities. While we currently do not have any agreements finalized, we remain committed to this process," Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry stated. "We don't have any additional information to provide right now."

Considering this is the most information they've provided about the strike thus far, we can't say we were surprised by that.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray