After more than two months on strike, it all came down to a vote. Would members of United Steelworkers District 227 opt to accept the "last, best and final offer" from LyondellBasell and go back to work, or would they decide to stay on strike?
After two days of voting, the final count came in late Tuesday night. Despite the fact that USW 227 members have been on strike since February 1, walking away from their jobs, paychecks and health insurance, the union members voted to continue the local strike, Joshua Lege, LyondellBasell employee and USW 227 strike coordinator, says.
When the national arm of USW first called the national strike more than two months ago, the 450 union members at LyondellBasell's Pasadena refinery were some of the first workers to go out on strike. The strike increased to more than 6,000 people at 15 plants, including 12 refineries, before Royal Dutch Shell, on behalf of the oil companies, and USW national reps, on behalf of the union members, finally reached a deal.
But from there the strike was far from over, since every local union had to approve the national package and then agree on a local contract with their local company officials. Some people went in and worked out these contracts relatively quickly but the negotiations between USW 227 and LyondellBasell have been dragging on for weeks.
On Saturday LyondellBasell put their "last, best and final offer" on the table, a move that forced the full body of union members (there are now about 400 active since about 50 have crossed the picket line to go back to work) to vote on the contract. The USW negotiating committee urged members not to accept the deal and members had Monday and Tuesday to stop by the union hall and vote.
Lege says they won't release the actual voting tally until the union meeting Wednesday night, but about 320 members voted, the highest voter turnout they've had in years. Lege had previously predicted that the vote would be 51 percent in favor of rejecting the contract and continuing the strike, but he said the votes in support of the strike came in even stronger than that, he says.
LyondellBasell vice president Kevin Brown responded to the "no" vote with an open letter to his "colleagues" informing the striking union members that LyondellBasell plans to begin implementing the terms of the final offer on Monday including "implementing the 2.5% wage increase under the NOB and moving forward with [their] commitment to hire new operators."
Throughout the strike, both sides have been accusing the other of unfair labor practices and the National Labor Relations Board heard complaints and took testimony last week, Lege says. The board should issue their decision soon, Lege says, and if the board votes to confirm that USW 227 is in a local unfair labor practices strike, LyondellBasell won't be able to permanently replace the striking workers and the two sides will have to continue negotiating to work out a local contract that both can agree on.
Should the board decide that USW 227 is on an economic strike the local union will have to decide whether they want to accept the offer on the table or if they want to walk away and go find other jobs. But Lege cautions that the board finding that they are in an economic strike is a worst case scenario.
Brown's letter made it clear that LyondellBasell is intent on interpreting this as an economic strike and that USW 227's negotiating committee is to blame for the failure to cobble together an agreement.
"The USW's strike is, and always has been, economic. Houston Refining has tried diligently for over three months to reach a deal with the USW negotiators, but the [co]mpany's efforts have proved futile. Even with the help of a federal mediator, the union has taken an intractable stance. Negotiations are at impasse."
And then Brown stated that the past 11 weeks has given LyondellBasell officials time to really think about safety and management issues and they've decided to start slowly making some changes around the place. He encouraged striking employees to basically consider the vague promises of change and the terms of the last contract good enough and to come back to work:
"We encourage all of you to study the new terms going into effect this coming Monday. Many of your coworkers have already returned to work and will benefit from these improved terms. We welcome you to join them. With full appreciation and respect for your legal right to strike and remain off work, we believe that doing so is not in your best economic interest."
Lege says Brown's claims in the letter, including a statement implying they're going to replace the striking workers, are all a last ditch scare tactic. "It says in the letter that they are going to bargain in good faith with us. If they're doing that how can they also say that we're at an impasse," Lege says. "This letter is a great piece of propaganda, it's a Hail Mary Pass to try and scare us and to get more scabs back into the facility before they have to sit down with us again."
Lege says that the company's first quarterly call is April 24, so he thinks the company is just trying to get this matter resolved before they have to go before their investors.
Now, USW 227 is working on its official response to Brown's letter. They have a meeting scheduled for Wednesday night and are slated to discuss the voting results and hold elections for union leadership positions (it's a previously scheduled election.) Union leaders are trying to get out and make sure the members aren't intimidated by Brown's letter. Lege contends that even though Brown notes the strike has been difficult for both sides, LyondellBasell officials are the one who have dragged out negotiations.
"They've really made this excruciatingly hard for the members and their families. We could have been looking at an offer like this and working things out a month ago, but they wanted to test the membership, to fracture friendships and see if they could break us, but they haven't," Lege says. "This is union busting. it's nothing more elegant than that."
When we asked LyondellBasell spokesman George Smalley if LyondellBasell is "union busting" Smalley dismissed the accusation that the company is trying to get rid of the union. "Not at all, we are simply trying get our employees back to work under a fair and responsible collective bargaining agreement," Smalley said. In answer to all other questions Smalley referred us to Brown's letter.