CHICAGO — Chanting “We want a contract now,” some 200 striking oil refinery workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 7-1, got off buses that brought them from Whiting, Indiana, and marched to the BP offices here March 19. The local has been on strike against BP since Feb. 8.
Workers at BP in Whiting and BP/Husky in Toledo, Ohio; at Marathon in Galveston Bay, Texas, and Catlettsburg, Kentucky; and at LyondellBasell in Houston are still on strike.
Bosses at these refineries are refusing to approve the March 12 national industry-pattern agreement worked out between the Steelworkers and Shell, and are demanding concessions in local agreements.
Steelworkers at Shell refineries in Texas and Tesoro refineries in California and Anacortes, Washington, have approved both the national and local contracts and are beginning to return to work.
The first national oil strike in more than 30 years began Feb. 1, spreading to 15 refineries and petrochemical plants in seven states. Strikers are fighting for safety on the job, less forced overtime, the end of contracting out daily maintenance and keeping the “retrogression clause” guaranteeing continuation of gains won in past contracts. The fight shifted to union locals after the tentative national agreement.
“We are here today to let BP know that the members are solid,” Bob Loft, USW staff person, told the Militant. “We have had no movement since Feb. 8. We are still negotiating. BP wants to take away our rights in the contract so that we will be unable to bargain over changes in policies that the company wants to implement.”
Alec Holmes, 20, one of about 400 contract workers employed by Veolia Environmental Services at the Whiting refinery, proudly held a USW banner at the protest. “My father has worked at BP for 26 years,” Holmes told the Militant. “Out of respect for the USW, I will not cross the picket line.”
“The company calls me at 6 a.m. every morning to say that if I don’t cross the picket line, I’ll lose my job,” he continued. “A week after the strike began, they called me to go in and help clean up a leak. I said, ‘No way. I’m not going to cross the line.’ This strike is about safety, and it’s going to help everybody who works in the refinery, including contractors, and the community too.”
“I saw a notice about the rally on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers website and decided to come to show support,” said Sandra Verri, a laid-off union electrician at BP. “We need to put BP in their place.”
Local 7-1 is organizing another march through Whiting to the refinery March 27.
“There are three big steel mills in Northwest Indiana that have contracts coming up,” Dave Bevil, a striking BP operator, told the Militant. “We’re setting a precedent. If BP busts us, the steel mills will try to bust them.”
At the Tesoro refinery in Carson, California, members of Steelworkers Local 675 voted to approve the contract March 22 and began to return to work.
“The company messed up because this strike brought solidarity between the operations and maintenance department workers,” Jason LaBella, a pipe fitter and member of Local 675, told the Militant. “We have been able to discuss all the lies the company has used to drive a wedge between us. The strike also helped the younger generation see how the union works. We will go back 100-fold stronger.”
Some 200 Steelworkers from the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, California, and from nearby Chevron and Shell refineries, rallied at Tesoro in support of Criff Reyes, an alkylation plant operator and picket captain framed up and fired by Tesoro.
Workers will be voting on the contract this week.
Some 100 union members and community supporters rallied March 21 outside the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington. Two days later the unionists approved the contract.
“We wouldn’t have got what we did without the strike,” Gordon Zurn, recording secretary for Steelworkers Local 12-591, told the Militant in a phone interview March 25. “The solidarity we got from other unions and the community was important in helping us get what we did.”
Marathon Petroleum has rejected the “no retrogression” clause in the national agreement and is proposing major concessions in local agreements.
More than 200 striking members of Steelworkers Local 13-1 and supporters marched from the union hall to the Marathon refinery in Texas City, Texas, March 23 to a candlelight vigil marking the 10th anniversary of the massive explosion at the refinery, owned by BP at the time. Striker Bill Rowe read the names of 35 workers killed at the refinery since 1980.
“We are fighting today to make sure something like this can never happen again,” Rev. James Daniels said.
“To these companies, everyone is disposable,” Nancy Clay, whose husband works at Marathon, told the Militant.
The same day at the main gate of the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, more than 100 striking members of Steelworkers Local 8-719 held a similar vigil, Dave Martin, vice president of the local, told the Militant. The event commemorated not only the workers killed in Texas in 2005, but also those killed on the job at the Catlettsburg refinery. “Four members of our local spoke at the vigil,” Martin said, “and we drove five crosses in the ground for the local members who have been killed in explosions and accidents here.”
“The members are pretty involved with the strike,” Martin said. “We feel like we need to stand strong. None of the support we have been getting from other unions and the community has slowed down.”
John Naubert in Anacortes, Washington; Betsey Stone in Martinez, California; Ilona Gersh in Chicago; and Bob Samson in Texas City, Texas, contributed to this article.
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