ST. PAUL PARK, Minn. — An important labor battle is playing out here that pits Marathon Petroleum — the largest oil refining company in the U.S. — against 200 workers, members of the Teamsters union. These workers deserve solidarity and support to strengthen their hand.
They were locked out Jan. 22 after a one-day strike in a fight over safe working conditions and against boss moves to replace union workers with subcontracted labor.
This Militant worker-correspondent joined a Feb. 14 caravan of more than 70 cars here, decked out with signs proclaiming solidarity with the locked-out Marathon workers, as it snaked past the multiple refinery entrances. The action warmed the spirits of the picketers on a bitterly cold Valentine’s Day.
Rebecca Williamson, a Walmart worker and Socialist Workers Party candidate for City Council in Seattle, also joined the caravan and gave the workers messages of support she brought from Washington state.
The solidarity caravan was made up of workers from many unions, including the Teamsters, United Steelworkers, United Food and Commercial Workers, Roofers, Laborers International Union, National Association of Letter Carriers, Minnesota Nurses Union and others. Claire Van den Berghe, an organizer with UFCW Local 1189, initiated the caravan.
“I was surprised by how many cars participated,” Van den Berghe told the Militant. “A few of us got the word out. My union helped make signs. We need to keep organizing solidarity.”
Williamson presented the solidarity statements to Tom Erickson, president of Teamsters Local 120, and gave copies to workers on the picket line. “This is a message of support from the Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia (Workers United for Justice),” she told Erickson. “They walked off the job to protest unsafe conditions in the fruit packing warehouses in central Washington and inspired workers to walk out at seven other packinghouses.”
The message from Agustín López, president of Workers United for Justice, said in Spanish, “We support all your members. Forward! You can do it!”
She also presented a card from her co-workers at the Federal Way Walmart where she works.
Upon reading the statement from the fruit packers union and hearing about the conditions they face, one picket said, “Migrant workers get abused. I don’t care where you are from, you don’t deserve to be treated like that.”
Williamson and Gabby Prosser, a campaign supporter in Minneapolis, talked with locked-out workers in a Teamsters trailer set up near the pickets, where workers warm up and get a snack during their six-hour picket shifts. “This isn’t about money. It’s about safety,” said Don Lande, who has worked for Marathon for over 20 years. “They cut jobs and put more on us. It’s not safe having us do six different jobs.”
A number of the workers said that safety was the key issue, both for them and for those who live near the refinery.
“These kind of attacks are happening to workers all over,” Williamson said. “That is why it’s so important that you all are standing up. We need to build a fighting labor movement. And we need to build our own political party, a labor party, that can help mobilize the support and power of working people.”
“I agree with that,” said Ron Linker, another picket.
Washington County Sheriff’s Department cops sit in their cars monitoring each picket site. The company won an injunction limiting the number of pickets to six crossing the road at a time. “The cops, the judge, and the company are all in this together,” said John, a picket who asked that his last name not be used.
Scott Kroona, Teamsters Local 120 business agent, told the Militant, “We’ve gotten unbelievable union and community support.” Supporters have dropped off several cords of firewood. Volunteers from Laborers International Local 563 have cooked hot dogs and hamburgers for the picketers for the past week.
A serious class battle
Marathon is a multibillion dollar capitalist outfit that runs 16 refineries across the U.S., including in Texas, California and Illinois, and supplies a number of gas station chains, including Marathon, Arco, Speedway, Hess and Tesoro.
Business has fallen during the coronavirus pandemic as driving and gas purchases have declined. Marathon reported a loss of $1 billion in the third quarter of 2020.
“This is a serious fight,” Williamson told the Militant. “The bosses are looking to make the workers pay for their crisis. It makes getting the word out about the lockout and winning support for the workers more important.”
During the caravan Williamson reconnected with fellow fighters in the United Food and Commercial Workers union. She was a member of Local 789, which later merged with Local 1189, and took part in a hard-fought victory against a company-led effort to decertify the union at Dakota Premium Foods slaughterhouse in South St. Paul, where she worked some 13 years ago. The slaughterhouse, which is now closed, was located 5 miles from the Marathon refinery.
The next day Williamson and local SWP supporters met with officers and a former co-worker at the Local 1189 union hall to discuss solidarity with the Marathon workers and other workers’ battles today.
“We are partners with the Teamsters in this fight,” said Jennifer Christiansen, president of UFCW Local 1189.
The Teamsters maintain their picket lines 24/7 and welcome all who want to help. Send messages of support and contributions to the strike fund at Teamsters Local 120, 9422 Ulysses St. NE Blaine, MN 55434.