FINDLAY, Ohio — Several hundred United Steelworkers strikers and supporters rallied and marched in sub-freezing temperatures to the Marathon Oil headquarters here Feb. 24, chanting, “Safe refineries save lives” and “No contract, no peace.” Sizable contingents of strikers from the BP-Husky refinery near Toledo and the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, participated.
In addition to 24-hour picketing at the 15 refineries and petrochemical plants in seven states currently out in the nationwide strike, union members and supporters are organizing rallies and protests, joining other labor battles, coordinating medical and financial assistance for members in need, and hosting a myriad of events to involve family members and supporters.
Organized by Steelworkers District 1 in Ohio, the Findlay rally was an example of the growing support for the oil strike, the biggest in 35 years. The walkout began Feb. 1 and currently involves nearly 7,000 workers. Overall, the Steelworkers represent 30,000 oil workers at more than 200 refineries and chemical plants.
“This strike is about safe staffing levels,” said David McCall, District 1 director, who chaired the rally. “Since 2012, 27 oil workers have been killed. Last week there was an explosion in Torrance, California.”
Management has been operating all but one of the struck plants with the help of contractors. The union is seeking an industry-pattern contract in negotiations with Shell Oil.
“Shell refuses to take these issues seriously,” McCall said. “The only way they can defeat us is to divide us. If we have to reject seven more proposals, that is what we will do.”
Striking Steelworkers Local 8-719 members from Kentucky were cheered as they arrived. “On the way here one of our buses broke down when the pipes froze,” Dave Martin, vice president of the local, told the rally. “We piled as many as we could on the other bus and rented a van for everyone else.”
Martin said refinery bosses have cut down the workforce to dangerously low levels. “Our numbers have been dwindling across the nation. This is a fight for safety, a fight for getting refineries staffed like they should be, doing the things that should be done — like maintenance. This strike is 30 to 40 years in coming. We are not going to give any more. One day longer. Right? One day stronger. Right!”
More than 60 strikers from the BP-Husky refinery took part, and Local 1-346 President Jonathan Cathers spoke of the explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance.
“When I saw the photos I was shocked that there weren’t any fatalities. This shows the dangerous conditions we are working in. We are tired of sacrificing safety,” Cathers said.
After the march everyone went to the Steelworkers Local 207L hall for pizza. The local’s members were locked out for three months by Cooper Tire in 2011-12.
“Everybody sees close calls,” Matt Brim, a Toledo striker, told the Militant. “BP’s fatigue policy is based on days, not hours. You can work 19 days straight on mandatory overtime. This means you could work eight hours or 15 hours or 19 hours a day, it doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t pass the 19-day limit. It’s dangerous, to say the least.”
Heather McClellan from Steelworkers Local 1-626 in Lima works at INEOS, where cyanide is used to make acrylonitrile for production of plastic. Her local is not on strike but is part of the National Oil Bargaining contract group. The company is trying to discipline her for refusing mandatory overtime.
“I’m a single mom,” McClellan said. “I already worked through Christmas and was planning to celebrate later that week with my 10-year-old. They wanted to force me to work. I said no. You’ve got to take a stand!”
Linda Avers contributed to this article.
BY BOB SAMSON
DEER PARK, Texas — “Solidarity is better than I’ve ever seen it,” Lee Medley, president of United Steelworkers Local 13-1 here, told the Militant March 1. “We get a lot of calls from people saying, ‘Thank you, we know you’re not just fighting for yourselves.’”
The Steelworkers want to take back daily maintenance jobs that the bosses have been systematically contracting out, some to nonunion outfits, others to companies organized by other unions. At stake is the industrial character of the union and its power to exert control over conditions on the job.
“For the duration of the USW strike,” a Feb. 25 joint statement between the Steelworkers and the North America’s Building Trades Unions said, “NABTU unions and their members shall respect the USW picket lines and refrain from performing struck work, with the understanding that rebuilding and/or new construction by NABTU union members shall be permitted and USW will assist the NABTU in facilitating such work.”
At the same time, NABTU agreed that maintenance jobs should be organized by the Steelworkers.
Three strikers at Shell’s Deer Park refinery here were arrested and jailed Feb. 23 for allegedly obstructing a highway while picketing at the refinery entrance. “We believe we have a right to picket,” Medley said. “The guy that arrested them was an off-duty cop working for Shell. We bailed them out and are providing legal counsel.”
“Why would a company refuse to guarantee workers the right to a safe workplace?” wrote former Texas District Judge Susan Criss in a column in the Feb. 16 Galveston County Daily News. “Because the lives and safety of their workers do not matter enough to cut into profits. Because the people that do the work generating those profits do not matter.” Criss presided over 4,016 legal claims in the aftermath of the March 2005 explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City that killed 15 workers and injured 180.
“Why are the union members not backing down?” she asked. “Because they cannot forget the cost of working in dangerous conditions.”
Bosses at Shell and LyondellBasell sent letters to strikers urging them to turn their back on their co-workers and the union and cross the picket line.
The Houston Chronicle ran a front-page article Feb. 27 featuring three workers who returned to work at Shell in Deer Park. The notorious anti-union National Right to Work Foundation has provided legal and other help to them.
Danielle London contributed to this article
BY PATTI IIYAMA
AND JERRY FREIWIRTH
MARTINEZ, Calif. — Several strikers on the picket line at the Tesoro refinery here told us about the erosion of the union’s control over maintenance jobs and what it has meant for the workers’ ability to defend safe working conditions.
“Over the last decade or more, as maintenance workers at Tesoro — electricians, machinists, pipe fitters — retire or quit, they’re not replaced by new hires,” said Warren Kostenuk, an operator in the alkylation department. “Instead, the company contracts with a third party to bring in ‘contractor maintenance’ workers, some of whom may have never worked in a refinery setting before.”
“Summit drove us to test over 500 possible leak points a day, way beyond what was really possible, and this compromised both the safety and environmental effectiveness of our work,” said Scot Stanford, who used to work for nonunion contractor Summit at Shell’s refinery here. “But there was no union, so if I didn’t do what the boss said, I placed my job in jeopardy.”
He was later hired directly at Tesoro, doing the same kind of work, “but now I had a say in things — both concerning my safety and the way we did our work — because I was in the USW,” he said. “Plus we were only required to test 300 points a day. ”
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