HOUSTON — The pickets outside a giant Shell refinery east of Houston run around the clock without a break, in eight-hour shifts so the line is always manned.
The protesters, who belong to the United Steelworkers union, are participating in the first major U.S. oil strike since 1980, one that has centered on the huge oil industry in Texas.
Some 3,800 workers nationwide walked off the job at midnight on Sunday, after Royal Dutch Shell and the United Steelworkers (USW) union failed to agree on terms for a new national contract. Then at nine refineries and plants across the U.S., workers went on strike at the end of the shifts.
Five of those refineries and plants are in Texas — three in the Houston area and two in Texas City, about 40 miles to the southeast. At Marathon’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, 1,100 workers are on strike, the most of any of the refineries or plants. Combined, the nine facilities handle 10 percent of the oil refined in the U.S. Texas is at the heart of the American oil industry and thus now at the heart of the dispute roiling the sector.
Workers in Texas and elsewhere are preparing for a potentially long action. Protesters outside the Shell refinery had no idea how long the work stoppage would last, but they know the 1980 strike dragged on for three months.
It could spread much wider, threatening an even bigger industrial action at a time when oil prices are in free fall and some analysts have talked of the bursting of an energy bubble in America that has been propelled by the rapid recent development of the fracking industry. If USW called on all its members to abandon their posts, as it did in 1980, 65 refineries — which account for 64 percent of U.S. oil production — would temporarily lose workers.
One operator at Shell, David Devoss, has been working there for 31 years and talked to some colleagues who were around during the 1980 strike. “A lot of people talked about going out and getting other jobs,” he said. “Roofing was a popular choice, and other people had relatives who could get them jobs in construction.”
If this work stoppage continues, some protesters said, they are going to have to start looking for other jobs to make ends meet. “Even if I went back to construction, I’m not going to get [just] any job. I’m going to try to get a union job,” said Rick, who works in maintenance and has been at Shell for nearly a decade. He did not want to disclose his last name since he is not authorized to speak for the union.
“Depending on how long this is going to last,” he added. “But I’ve definitely got a couple items I’ve got to take care of.”
Shell is negotiating on behalf of the whole industry, and other oil companies will follow the pattern outlined in the currently disputed contract after it’s finalized. The oil giant, the union says, refuses to accept measures that would ensure greater safety in refineries and petrochemical plants around the country. In a brief statement to Al Jazeera, a Shell representative did not respond to specific questions, writing in an email, “Shell and USW continued negotiations on Wednesday.”
Companies are replacing union workers with managers and other employees, and in some cases they are bringing in contract workers while the union strikes. As was the case 35 years ago, the strikes have not led to plant shutdowns, and the strike hasn’t affected gasoline prices. But union leaders and refinery workers alike say they worry about safety at the refineries now, with potentially undertrained contract workers and managers who are unfamiliar with all the operations.
The union rejected five of Shell’s offers, prompting executives to walk away from the negotiating table. At the company’s Deer Park refinery and plant just outside Houston, 800 workers walked off the job and began picketing on Sunday. Outside the refinery this week USW members stood side by side in the cold rain, holding their blue signs. Some cars speeding by on the access road honked their support, and some stopped to give the protesters homemade brownies, water and rain-repellent ponchos. None of the strikers wanted to discuss the specific terms of the contract being negotiated on their behalf, but they emphasized that safety was at the heart of their demands.
In negotiations, which began Jan. 21, USW is asking for changes to the fatigue standard, which it says the companies manipulate to their advantage through overtime. The union wants the companies to address understaffing at facilities, which can lead to accidents and unsafe working conditions.
“They’ve used overtime for years instead of hiring people,” says Lee Medley, president of USW Local 13-1, of which all the Texas strikers are members. “Some of my guys eat it up — they like the pile of money it brings. But it’s dangerous. Would you want to be driving down the road next to somebody’s who’s been working five, six days in a row for 16 hours?”
‘They’ve used overtime for years instead of hiring people. Some of my guys eat it up – they like the pile of money it brings. But it’s dangerous.’
president, USW Local 13-1
To make quality hires, USW wants the companies to pay for apprenticeship programs to ensure new workers are better trained and to create opportunities for young men and women who want union jobs but don’t have the resources to get them. A reduction in workers’ out-of-pocket health care expenses is also on the table, as is a provision for pay raises.
USW’s top administrators are negotiating the national contract, but local union chapters settle other specifics with the oil companies. In Texas City, local negotiators are running into serious setbacks with the Marathon Petroleum Corp., which bought BP’s Texas City plant — the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others — in 2012 and inherited BP’s contract with the union.
Union members say they are concerned that Marathon wants to undo safety measures at the plant, including those instituted after a contentious 1973 strike that involved a four-month dispute at Deer Park over safety measures. USW says Marathon wants to remove union members from key posts that were created to ensure safety at its facilities. It also wants to have final say on what members are appointed to the health and safety committee, made up of union and management personnel.
“A lot of companies take health and safety concerns and put them on the back shelf,” Medley said. “These people make sure they’re done, and they give people out in the field a voice, and they raise issues. [The companies] want to take that away and make it to where that’s a company job.”
A representative for Marathon said the firm was ready to talk and took safety issues seriously. “Marathon Petroleum Co. has plans in place to ensure the continued safe operation of its facilities and stands ready to continue negotiations at the local level,” the representative said.
At the moment, there is little sign that the strike is nearing an end. USW has said it will call on members at additional refineries to go on strike if it has to, and for the first time, its strategy includes picketing outside a company’s corporate headquarters. This week workers and supporters gathered outside LyondellBasell’s building in downtown Houston, holding signs and chanting.