In 2005, a massive explosion and fire erupted at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring 170 more. One of the main causes of the disaster, according to a representative from the United Steelworkers union, was workers’ exhaustion.
Ten years later, union leaders whose members work in refineries and chemical plants across the South and beyond say they are battling the oil industry over the same issue.
As of early Sunday morning, about 800 workers at two refineries and a chemical plant in southeastern Louisiana joined more than 5,200 others at a dozen other facilities across the nation in a strike over what United Steelworkers representatives said are inadequate staffing levels, worker fatigue and safety issues — a claim the industry denies.
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“That’s what’s driving this whole issue. It’s not uncommon for these operators to work 500, 600 or even over 1,000 overtime hours a year, which is averaging 60 hours a week” in total hours, said Brent Petite, a staff representative of the international union that represents 850,000 workers in North America alone. “It’s just not a good thing to have a community at risk because of tired operators, or tired mechanics.”
On Sunday morning, a handful of union workers could be seen holding signs and picketing in front of each of the entrances of Motiva refineries in Convent and Norco and a Shell Chemical plant in Norco. As the picketers marched in groups of six or seven, other strikers gathered in the union office in Norco.
By midmorning, strikers were insisting that the union-represented workers would be missed from the local plants while they were out striking.
A flame could be seen erupting from a smokestack at one of the Norco refineries as steam and smoke vented from inside the plant, making a high-pitched sound. “That means something’s out of the ordinary,” one worker said.
While the picketers wouldn’t speak on the record about the state of affairs that led to the strike, Petite said the local union was out there “for the greater good,” acting in solidarity with members elsewhere in the nation.
That’s because, while national contracts were still being hashed out at a bargaining table between the United Steelworkers and the oil company Royal Dutch Shell, the issues being argued didn’t necessarily resonate in Louisiana facilities.
The United Steelworkers strike began Feb. 6 at nine refineries in Texas, California, Kentucky and Washington after talks broke down between Royal Dutch Shell and the union. It spread as contracts expired at other facilities.
The talks with Shell, the lead company in national contract negotiations with the USW, will set the stage for agreements with other companies. In all, the union represents workers at about 65 U.S. refineries.
In addition to the national talks, which set wages, benefits and working conditions, there also are local negotiations around the country. According to Petite, local negotiations affecting Louisiana workers already have begun.
“Well, it was normal, nothing really earth-shattering,” he said about the local discussions, which centered on staffing levels and other topics — not worker fatigue or safety issues. “Nothing really controversial on the local tables.”
Regardless, he said, the local union members would continue to strike as long as it takes to negotiate a national contract.
“The problem is that it doesn’t transfer throughout the industry or even throughout Shell,” Petite said about what he called the “fatigue standard,” an unofficial but nonbinding agreement to limit work hours, made between union and industry officials after the Texas City disaster. “They will work someone fatigued” if it’s cheaper than bringing on a fresh worker, he said.
The issue is so serious, he added, that it has inspired solidarity for the largest refinery strike since 1980.
“This is the collective effort of everybody. … I mean, this is protecting communities, as well as our employees and the environment,” Petite said.
Lynne Hancock, a spokeswoman for the union, added that across the country, workers are routinely pulled out on temporary assignments, leaving those remaining to work overtime while the companies are short-staffed.
“Health and safety are the main sticking point,” Hancock said by phone Sunday. “We need to resolve those issues. At this time, I don’t know when that will happen.”
On its website, Shell decried the strike.
“We believe this move sets the wrong tone for both parties to move forward and reach an agreement,” the website said. “We remain committed to continued safe operations and productive negotiations.”
In an internal communication providing an update on the status of negotiations with the union, Shell officials also denied that workers were striking over unsafe working conditions.
“The central issue standing in the way of a settlement is not safety or fatigue, nor is it even about health care or wages, as the union claims,” the memo read. “Those things are important to all of us, and it’s important to share that we have engaged in productive negotiations regarding each of these issues. The central issue of the USW’s national leaders is their continued demand that Shell replace routine maintenance contractors with USW-represented employees.”
On Sunday, Petite admitted that the union is concerned about the use of outside contractors. But, he added, that issue relates directly to worker safety.
“We have a proposal on the table to limit the amount of contractors. And what that’s about, we want our guys to handle the equipment,” Petite said. “You know, this is not a candy factory. They’ve got some serious machinery out here that’s unique to the industry. You want your people to come in, train on it, know the intricacies of the equipment, that work on it day to day.”