USW and Shell Are Talking About Talking

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Representatives from the United Steelworkers and Royal Dutch Shell have been arguing over a new national contract for the oil refinery workers with no success, but now it looks like the two sides are gearing up to sit down and try once again to work out a new national contract. Or at least they're talking about talking, which seems something like progress at this point.

So far, USW 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 on February 1. Locally, the strike started by pulling union workers out of LyondellBasell, Marathon's Texas City Refinery and Shell Deer Park. The two sides are reportedly butting heads over safety issues, rules that make sure fatigued workers aren't stuck on the job, and contractors. Things haven't exactly been going well.

According to the National Labor Relations Act, all that is required of these negotiations is that the two parties sit down and try and work out a contract in "good faith," according to Ronald Turner, a University of Houston law professor who specializes in labor law. And it looks like that's about all the parties have done.

After the last round of negotiations broke down about a week ago, both USW and Shell issued statements declaring they'd negotiated in "good faith" and were very disappointed in the other side for not coming to an agreement. USW then upped the ante by pulling more workers out on strike, including the ones at the Motiva refinery in Port Arthur. (It's one of the largest refineries in the country and is owned by Shell and the Saudis).

There's been no word of renewed negotiations -- or of any plans for the two parties to get together since the last contract offer was shot down, but now it looks like that's about to change.

The two sides are talking about talking, as Reuters reported. We're betting the people on the picket lines are crossing their fingers and hoping that the talks go well this time. Not only are the strikers not getting paid right now, the ones at the Texas plants are having to strike in the brutal Texas winter. And yes, we know it's nothing like the "real winter" that's happening up north.

USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock said she hasn't received word of any communication between USW and Shell but noted that USW is willing to do some communicating any time. Meanwhile, Shell spokesman Ray Fisher's response was kind of wonderfully cryptic. "We are in contact with USW."

(If Fisher, who has seemingly mastered the art of the brief, direct and yet opaque email response, puts together a book of haikus composed entirely of his responses to the many media queries he's had to handle during the strike, we will totally buy a copy.)

No word on if or when these unofficial chats between USW and Shell officials will lead to another round of actual negotiations.

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