Anacortes, Wash. — In the first national strike in decades, 3,800 refinery workers represented by the United Steelworkers union went on strike against major oil companies on Feb. 1. The union’s major demand is for safety improvements in what has become an increasingly hazardous industry, with many fatalities.
Nine refineries in Texas, Kentucky, California and Washington were initially struck, but the numbers are growing. On Feb. 7, it was announced at a picket line at the Tesoro Corp. refinery near Anacortes, Wash., that two BP refineries in Ohio and Indiana had just been struck by the USW.
The strike is a bold and difficult move by the refinery workers, responding to dangerous working conditions. In 2010, seven workers were killed in a huge explosion at the Anacortes refinery.
Feb. 7 was a national day of support for the USW strike. Over 200 workers, with their supporters and families, picketed outside the main gate of Tesoro. The gate was locked during the protest, but the plant was still in operation.
The workers explained that most of the struck plants are still running, with untrained, nonunion personnel. This greatly increases the risks in an already dangerous situation and greatly concerns the workers.
Ryan Muyoff, USW staff representative, told Workers World that the union wants safety guarantees for the workers. The refineries are understaffed, and there is a big problem with fatigue, with workers given 12-hour shifts. The union is also fighting against having jobs contracted out.
The April 2, 2010, explosion which killed seven workers at the Tesoro-Anacortes refinery was due to company negligence. That was the determination of the Chemical Safety Board and the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
A team of workers was trying to restart a piece of equipment called a heat exchanger. It had been operated for decades at superheated temperatures without being inspected for the corrosion that caused it to explode.
Negligence in making repairs and the lack of inspections are problems throughout the industry. Fires and other incidents happen almost daily at refineries across the U.S.
The USW and environmental groups, including “Rising Tide,” say the oil company’s negligence is also a threat to community safety.
No criminal charges were brought by the government for the industrial murder of seven workers at Anacortes. The Labor and Industries Department found Tesoro had willfully broken workplace safety laws 39 times and assessed it a $2.39 million fine that’s been reduced to $658,000 after company appeals. This is pocket change for a Fortune 100 company with seven U.S. refineries.
“Out of Control,” a video produced by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union in 1991 and recently updated, points out that refinery workers are eight times more likely to die on the job from an industrial accident than in any other industry. It reports that the top five oil companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell — made over $1 trillion in profits between 2000 and 2010!
In 2014, Tesoro machinist and USW Local 12-591 president, Steve Gary, told Seattle’s KUOW radio: “The refining industry in general, they know what they’re supposed to do, and we believe they don’t always do it. That’s why we lost seven at Tesoro. That’s why we lost 15 at Texas City eight years ago. It’s why we lost 11 people and polluted the entire Gulf of Mexico. It’s the reason Cherry Point, Wash., burned a few years back, and it’s the reason the Chevron Richmond, Calif., plant burned and nearly killed 20 people and put thousands in the hospital.”
Industrial murder goes far beyond Anacortes and workers are saying enough is enough! pan>