Bob Riha Jr. / Reuters

Striking California oil refinery workers demand better safety, wages

Laborers at the Tesoro plant outside LA are among the 3,800 who began national walkout four days ago

CARSON, Calif. — Smoke is billowing from the mammoth Tesoro oil refinery, but none of the plant’s 800 union workers are on the job.

They’re outside, picketing at each of the eight gates to the refinery. Truckers and motorists honk their horns in support as they whiz by on 223rd Street in this industrial city south of Los Angeles, home of a soccer stadium used by the Los Angeles Galaxy.

It is now Day 4 of a strike by 3,800 oil refinery workers at nine plants in California, Texas, Kentucky and Washington state, which represent 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity. The strike could expand to other sites.

“We have some very high-skilled workers forced out on an unfair labor practice strike,” said Pat Patterson, 60, a pipefitter and 35-year employee of Tesoro and union chairman with United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675

Safety is at the crux of the largest national strike of oil workers since 1980. The strike was called by the USW, which represents 30,000 workers at more than 200 refineries, after talks broke down Sunday with Shell Oil, which is leading the industrywide bargaining effort.

The union is also seeking annual pay increases of 6 percent (twice the size of those in the last agreement) and cuts in workers’ health care costs. Additionally, it wants work that now goes to nonunion contractors to go to USW members.

But workers here say they are primarily protesting unsafe working conditions. “The strike is about our health and safety concerns over the application of the so-called fatigue policy, said David Campbell, the secretary-treasurer of Local 675. “They have in fact made the workers more fatigued. It’s management by stress.”

Melissa Bailey, 35, is a single mother of three kids ages 9 to 17. She has worked as an operator at Tesoro almost 15 years and has joined the three dozen picketers outside Gate 23. “I’ve worked 19 days in a row, 12 to 14 hours a day,” she said. “You’re exhausted. You push through, but it takes a toll on family life.”

That exhaustion, many say, also takes a toll on plant safety. “It’s been an ongoing problem year in and year out,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, the executive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California at Davis.

In January there were at least four major incidents with U.S. pipelines that resulted in explosions or spills. “These are jobs that require handling of hazardous materials,” Jaffe said. “We don’t think of it as high tech, but there are concerns over hydrogen leaks … These are not units where you can just flip a switch. There are chemicals in boilers.”

Bailey said it took her three and a half years to be fully qualified at her job, which includes making sure that all equipment is working properly and meets all environmental standards.

The refinery here is still operating because the company has trained managers to fill the void of striking workers, Patterson said. “In order to operate this facility, it takes years of training,” he said. “They created a modified training program for management personnel, but we believe the training lacks requirements.”

Tesoro did not respond to a request for comments. The company has said that it’s in the process of shutting its plant in Martinez in Northern California because part of the plant was already closed for maintenance.

The walkout doesn’t seem to have significantly slowed production yet and is not likely to affect prices at the pump for American consumers.

“We are in a low-demand period, low demand for gasoline and diesel,” said Bernard “Bud” Weinstein, an associate director of Maguire Energy Institute at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. “If it were occurring in summer, it might have more of an impact, because that’s when demand is high.”

‘I’ve worked 19 days in a row, 12 to 14 hours a day. You’re exhausted. You push through, but it takes a toll on family life.’

Melissa Bailey

picketing worker, Tesoro

To produce a gallon of gasoline, hourly labor costs are less than 2 cents, according to union officials. Refineries buy crude oil and process it into various products, including gas.

When crude oil prices drop, as they have in recent months — more than 60 percent since June, to about $50 a barrel — so do profit margins because refineries are selling gasoline for less, Weinstein said. He expects most of the refineries facing a walkout to keep operating at least at partial capacity, he said. Relatively few people can operate a refinery facility, but repairs and maintenance require many trained workers.

At Gate 23, the main entrance to Tesoro’s administration building, a car tries to get past picketers holding up “Unfair labor practice strike” signs. The driver flashes his ID. He’s with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“OSHA! Go get ’em,” the picketers shout out as they wave him through.

“There were at least four OSHA inspectors here yesterday,” Patterson said — a sign that the refinery’s operations are under scrutiny during the strike.

“It’s not the greatest feeling not going to work,” Bailey said. She worries about the people running the refinery during the walkout because they may not be fully trained.

About 450 of the striking workers are operators, and an additional 250 are maintenance workers, including machinists, electricians, pipefitters, welders and carpenters. Their average pay is $40 an hour.

“In a manner of speaking, a refinery can make more money when most of their workforce is on strike because they don’t have to pay the workers,” Weinstein said.

A view of the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, California, February 2, 2015.
Robert Galbraith / Reuters

But what the union wants is for companies to hire more people and shorten workers’ hours. “We like this overtime, but give other people a chance to make the wages and benefits,” Campbell said. “That would be the most responsible thing in terms of safety and in terms of protecting assets for their shareholders. These refineries are not cheap. To jeopardize that equipment is stupid.”

He said that it costs the company less to pay overtime than to offer benefit packages to new hires. That’s a challenge that the industry has to confront as workers age and retire.

“The entire oil industry is graying,” Jaffe said. “If you think about it, it’s not a field where people who are killing themselves to get into petroleum and chemical engineering programs … Do the unions actually have 25-year-olds and 35-year-olds who want these jobs?”

Campbell said companies have to address the issue.“Our employees retire, quit or die, and in many cases they’re not being replaced,” he said. “It’s dangerous. Working people 12 hours a day, six days a week is dangerous.”

Contributing reporting by Liz Flynn in Dallas

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