Social Distortion

USW Members Voting on LyondellBasell Contract Today

More than two months in, the United Steelworkers oil refinery strike still isn't technically over, but things could wrap up soon for the USW District 227 workers at LyondellBasell in Pasadena.

USW 227 has been on strike from the start. When USW called the strike on February 1, about 450 union workers at LyondellBasell in Pasadena were part of the first wave to actually go out on strike. By the time the action -- the first significant oil refinery strike in 30 years -- got rolling, more than 6,000 union employees at 15 plants, including 12 refineries, across the country were on strike.

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

After so long without a real strike, it's been a learning experience for many of the union members, USW reps say. At LyondellBasell, the employees walked the picket line and tried to wait it out. Those who come from union families know that strikes can last a long time. (The 1980 strike lasted for three months.) While officials with Royal Dutch Shell, negotiating on behalf of the oil companies, and USW, negotiating on behalf of about 30,000 workers, struggled to agree on a national contract, the striking workers were going without paychecks and health insurance.

It was tough but they managed. Only about 50 of the 450 strikers crossed the picket line and went back to work, according to USW 227. The others lived off of savings or supplements from USW, or they went and got new jobs. The union provided health insurance. The community has been helping out as well. Local restaurants send food over to the union hall about once a week. A couple of local grocery stores have been sending over soon-to-expire goods to help fill in the union food pantry, and church officials have called to remind the union that its members can make use of the church food pantries.

"This had built up. It's a 30-year thing, and I hope it's another 30 years before we have to do this again, but the membership knows now what a strike calls for and what this really means, actually. And they aren't afraid anymore. I think that makes the company nervous," Joshua Lege, a LyondellBasell employee and USW 227 strike coordinator, says.

The company negotiators put a "last, best final offer" on the table on Saturday evening.

Really. That's what it's called. Here's a prepared statement LyondellBasell spokesman George Smalley sent us via email on Monday:

"The company made its last, best and final offer to help put striking employees back to work. We have made concessions during the negotiations and put forth a competitive offer. We respect employee's rights to now vote in a manner they consider best for them and their families."

If that bit about "last, best and final" sounds ominous, Lege says that it's supposed to. "What they're saying is that they want to gut-check the membership. It's a way for the company to find out if the membership is behind the committee or if the membership just wants to go back to work."

By putting down this last, best and final offer, the company is calling on USW 227 members to actually vote on the contract. If the majority votes yes, then company officials and union reps will start working out a return-to-work agreement. If the union members vote no, the company officials and union committee members have to go back to the bargaining table to see if they can work out another deal. Voting started Monday and will conclude this evening, with the results likely announced later tonight, Lege says.

However, the union negotiating committee isn't recommending the contract. The contract would change the overtime policy so that the hours an employee works, if they aren't a part of the employee's regular schedule, aren't counted with the regular 40-hour workweek, which would make it more difficult for employees to get paid overtime. "What it's doing is eliminating a practice designed nearly six decades ago to prevent unscheduled overtime," Lege says.

Company officials threw in the offer to hire about 20 extra workers once the strike is over to help provide enough employees to cover work at the refinery. But union reps say this is essentially a token offer, because between the people who have opted to retire over the course of the strike and those who have chosen to get other jobs, the company will have to replace about 20 workers just to get back to pre-strike employee levels.

The other problem with the contract is that the company wants to change its scheduling system. Instead of using clerks to schedule workers, company officials want to put in a computer system. While replacing clerks with a computer program may not sound like the first trump of doom these days, the computer-schedule program would be a non-grievable system. Employees would have 72 hours' notice, but if there's a problem or a mistake with the schedule, a worker wouldn't be able to file a grievance and arbitrate, or talk to someone about it the way he or she can under the current system. That may not sound like a big deal, but Lege argues that at this point, the workers might as well stick it out and get the deal they want. "With clerks there's someone to talk to and someone to work things out with. This program wouldn't have that," he says.

The company is likely hoping that union members are ready to just go back to work and start collecting paychecks after 11 weeks of walking the picket line. And it's possible the union could decide to go that way. But even if it does, the strike won't end right away. Once the contract has been voted in, the two sides will still have to cobble together a return-to-work agreement. And once they're back on the job for a couple of months, union members will have to sit down with company officials to go through their records on fatigue and maintenance to give the company input on changing some of its processes, a stipulation of the national pattern contract.

Meanwhile, over in Texas City, local USW reps and officials from Marathon are apparently still trying to work out a deal. USW spokeswoman Lynne Hancock says that all locations still engaged in an unfair labor practice strike are still in negotiations, including Marathon's Texas City refinery, as of Monday evening.

Marathon spokesman Jamal Khiery stated he had no updates on Marathon's progress with the local USW union. So basically, nothing has really changed with the Marathon situation aside from the fact that both sides have somehow managed to get even more quiet about what's going on behind closed doors than they were before (and neither side has been terribly chatty over the course of the strike).

So the two sides are in some form of negotiations, and there's a chance that they'll work out a deal someday soon. Maybe.

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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