Oil strike breakthrough

Workers march in Findlay, Ohio, home of Marathon, on Feb. 24.WW photo: Martha Grevatt

Workers march in Findlay, Ohio, home of Marathon, on Feb. 24.
WW photo: Martha Grevatt

March 22 — The U.S. oil refinery strike, which began Feb. 1, appears to be moving toward a resolution. The Steelworkers union has been negotiating to achieve an industrywide contract to cover 30,000 workers at Royal Dutch Shell, Marathon, BP, Motiva, Tesoro, LyondellBasell and other companies.

Shell, whose refineries are among the 15 on strike and whose official is the lead negotiator on the industry side, agreed to a settlement with the Steelworkers union. Union members at Shell, voting March 19, ratified the agreement with 93 percent in favor. Soon, Shell refinery strikers will be back on the job.

What made the Shell oil company yield some ground was the solidarity of the workers. Until the other companies agree to the pattern negotiated with Shell, workers at their struck refineries will keep walking the picket lines.

Local unions also have to negotiate new local agreements at each workplace. In Texas City, Texas, Marathon workers complain about the 20-plus givebacks the company is demanding from the union; LyondellBasell wants to scrap language on overtime that has been on the books for over 20 years. Management at the BP refinery in Whiting, Ind. — hit with pickets when the strike was expanded Feb. 7 — wants contract changes that undermine seniority rights and the right to refuse overtime and seniority, and weaken the union’s ability to bargain collectively.

Safety was the number one strike issue from day one. Workers complained that having to stay on shifts 24 hours in a row or weeks without a day off created dangerous working conditions that have led to on-the-job fatalities and serious injuries. The Steelworkers issued a news release March 12 stating that Shell had agreed to “the immediate review of staffing and workload assessments, with USW safety personnel involved at every facility.” The four-year contract demands joint review of repair and daily maintenance needs at each facility. When these are neglected it puts worker and community safety at risk.

Joint reviews of subcontracting matters, another issue in the strike, are also part of the new contract. The first refinery jobs to be contracted out were janitor positions; now, the practice has spread, shrinking the workforce dramatically. Health benefits remain intact; the union sought improvements while the industry wanted givebacks. Workers receive a three percent raise each of the four years of the contract.

While the oil industry has been the most profitable industry in the capitalist economy, the companies want more from the hides of the workers. This strike, the first national oil strike since 1980, has to be seen in the general context of capitalist austerity and a broad anti-labor offensive. Striking the oil companies at this time — when plummeting oil prices have the bosses in a panic and there are widespread layoffs and closings of refineries — was a bold move.

The solidarity shown by Shell workers is continuing, especially in Texas, where the largest number of struck refineries is located. Shell workers around the Houston area are now picketing with their sisters and brothers at Marathon and LyondellBasell. They are all in different units of the same local. “I went out to the Lyondell picket line and walked the last several hours with them,” a ten-year worker at Shell’s Deer Park refinery told this writer. “I really admire their spirit. I hope others will do the same. People are invited to walk with them and have some good conversation.”