On strike against BP, Marathon, workers keep fighting for safety, job security

BP refinery workers on strike in Ohio, May 8.WW photo: Martha Grevatt

BP refinery workers on strike in Ohio, May 8.
WW photo: Martha Grevatt

UPDATE: On May 11 USW Local 7-1 announced that the membership had ratified a new contract and BP and the union had agreed on terms for the strikers to return to work. The Whiting, Indiana strike is officially over but the strikes in Texas and Ohio continue.

Oregon, Ohio — In the first national oil strike since 1980, the United Steelworkers took on the most profitable industry in the capitalist world on Feb. 1. The union selectively struck 15 refineries of Shell, Marathon, BP and other transnational conglomerates. Most of the thousands of strikers are now back at work, having won national and local plant agreements that address some of the union’s concerns — overtime, job security, health care and the core issue that drove workers to walk the picket lines: unsafe conditions that endanger workers and residents of the surrounding communities.

However, management is still playing hardball with the union and workers are still on strike in Whiting, Ind.; Texas City, Texas; and Oregon, Ohio.

In Whiting, Local 7-1 has negotiated a tentative local contract with BP but is fighting over the terms of the return-to-work agreement. Plant management wants to cancel the long-term disability insurance policies for strikers who did not personally pay the premiums while they were on strike. Also, the local objects to the company disciplining members who allegedly committed infractions while on the picket line.

The number of unresolved local issues between Marathon and Local 13-1 in Texas City has dropped from 28 to 15, but the parties remain far apart. They disagree on safety measures and forced overtime — life-and-death issues in a refinery — and job security. This refinery was the scene of a tragic explosion 10 years ago that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170.  The union won stronger safety language from BP, which owned the refinery at the time, but current owner Marathon wants to gut those protections.

A massive explosion took place in 1947 in the port of Texas City, inhabited by 30,000 residents. When ammonium nitrate on board the docked ship Grandcampa ignited, the blast’s impact shattered windows 40 miles away in Houston. The shocks registered on a seismograph in Denver. Flying red-hot shrapnel landed inside the refineries, causing more fires and explosions. Some 581 people lost their lives and 3,500 were injured.

This unforgettable disaster symbolizes corporate disregard for people’s safety. With that infamous catastrophe in mind and the 10th anniversary of the BP explosion marked this year, “There is not a lot of love between the workers and the industry,” a 13-1 member who works nearby for Shell, told this writer. “This is a strong local and a strong community.”

BP ‘trying to bust the union’

This writer spoke with Local 346-1 members who are on strike at the BP Husky refinery in Oregon, near Toledo, Ohio. A group gathered at the union hall to discuss the negotiations that had just taken place with a federal mediator present. The sticking point is “management rights” language. Plant bosses want to eliminate or combine jobs at their discretion — gutting contract language that says those changes have to be negotiated with the union.

The local even agreed to company demands to eliminate certain positions. “But the company still said no,” a striker stated. “All I can figure is they’re trying to break the union.”

With more work being done by fewer workers who are forced to work longer hours, fatalities and injuries occur. With a shrinking workforce having to constantly monitor more aspects of the refining process, mental stress increases. That stress has the same intensity experienced by air traffic controllers that led to their strike in 1981.

Only 15 out of 320 USW members have crossed the line. Striker Mike told this writer, “Those are the ones I really give a hard time to.” Workers on the picket line are solidly behind the union.

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