Union: Make the refinery safer, or we’ll walk

The United Steelworkers have threatened to strike at 69 oil refineries in the U.S. unless stricter safety procedures at plants and pipelines are adopted


If oil companies don’t agree to stricter safety procedures at plants and pipelines, the union representing employees at 69 U.S. oil refineries said it will strike.

The United Steelworkers (USW), which failed during contract negotiations in 2009 to get companies to agree to have a union-trained safety specialist at each refinery, will make a similar demand during talks that begin in January for a new three-year pact, said Gary Beevers, a USW representative.

About 300 delegates to the union’s annual oil bargaining conference in Dallas approved a bargaining policy for contract talks with the companies.

“We were not in a position to strike the last time because the recession told us we couldn’t do that to the American public,” Beevers said. “We’re still not where we need to be economically, but the companies’ margins are better. We’re either going to get some changes in health and safety or we’re going to have a strike.”

Refinery and pipeline union members, which number about 30,000, haven’t struck since 1980, when a work stoppage lasted three months. A strike would affect almost two-thirds of U.S. refining capacity, according to union research.

During the last contract talks in 2009, the union accepted higher wages while relenting on new safety provisions. The three-year agreement included 3 percent annual raises and $2,500 bonuses.

The union pointed out incidents that safety training could have prevented. One was the chemical explosion at Tesoro Corp.’s Anacortes, WA, refinery on April 2, 2010, that killed seven people, the deadliest accident at a U.S. plant since 2005.

Five percent of U.S. refineries had significant incidents in the previous two years, Robert Hall, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s lead Anacortes investigator, said on April 5, 2010.

“We always ask for better wages but we’re tired of taking chances with people’s lives,” Beevers said.

The policy, agreed upon unanimously by the delegates to the bargaining conference, went out this week to local unions representing workers at refineries and pipeline units. Ratification by 75 percent of the locals must occur within 45 days for the policy to become the official position for negotiating a new three-year contract with employers.

Most of the local contracts expire Jan. 31 and the rest later in the year. Talks should begin in January with Royal Dutch Shell, which will bargain on behalf of companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and Valero Energy Corp. If approved, a deal between Shell and the USW will become the pattern used to negotiate local contracts.

- Edited by Chris Vavra, Plant Engineering, www.plantengineering.com 

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