BEAUMONT, Texas — “Exxon, Exxon you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side” and “Stand up, fight back!” chanted dozens of members of United Steelworkers Local 13-243 and their supporters protesting outside the meeting of the World Petroleum Congress in Houston Dec. 6 where ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods was speaking.
Some 650 members of the USW local at the company’s oil refinery and blending and packaging plant here have been locked out since May 1 for refusing to accept a union-busting contract.
“A lot of people support us now, even more than we realize,” Teria Howard, one of the locked-out local members, told the Militant at the protest. “We were sent donations of school supplies and school clothes and now there is a Christmas toy drive being organized. Already bikes and iPads have been received to be given as presents at a Christmas party we’re organizing.”
Ricky Brooks, president of USW Local 13-2001 at the Baytown Exxon oil refinery, said, “This fight against the lockout is about Exxon trying to take away job security and seniority at all its facilities. Look at the strikes at John Deere, by health care workers and others that refute the ways of thinking that we don’t need unions anymore. Unions will come back and in a big way.”
Also at the action were several members of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees who had worked at the Beaumont refinery, and representatives of the Houston Central Labor Council and the Transport Workers Union. “I came to show my support for my brothers and sisters. That’s what you do!” TWU Local 260 member Fernando Dacosta said.
USW staff representative Bryan Gross told the Militant, “We haven’t met with the company since Nov. 1. There is a company-backed decertification vote against the union underway, so they’re stalling. The ballots have to be received by the NLRB by Dec. 22. The labor board will either count the votes or they may impound them until the charges we filed against the company are resolved.”
Spirits high on picket line
Following the protest this reporter and two other members of the Socialist Workers Party drove an hour and half southeast of Houston to Beaumont. We met Zachery Simons and Tonya Singer on picket duty at the Exxon Blending and Packaging plant.
Simons, a warehouse operator, who has worked here for eight years, said he has been following the union battles in other parts of the country.
“I was glad to hear that the United Auto Workers union members at John Deere won their strike. John Deere makes a lot of money. Farm equipment is expensive,” he said. “My Dad is a rice farmer near Lake Charles, Louisiana. Farmers there can’t afford to buy this equipment so they have to lease it. They are hit with high prices for farm equipment, fuel and, if you have government subsidies, they tell you how much land you can farm.”
Simons lives in Louisiana. Because of the foot-dragging by the state of Texas, he just started getting unemployment pay. But for most of the locked-out unionists, including Singer, their unemployment has run out.
Singer has worked for Exxon for six years. She proudly said, “I am the only woman A-operator in the Blending and Packaging plant.” When her unemployment ran out she had to pull funds from her retirement from International Paper where she had worked until the plant shut down. “The union is doing all it can to help us,” she said. “We have a food pantry and we get help paying our bills. In extreme health situations, like I face, the union is paying the COBRA for health insurance. I have to have knee replacement surgery.”
“We are out here to get what we deserve,” Simons said. “We kept Exxon going in rain, sleet, hurricanes and last year’s winter freeze, but they don’t want to acknowledge us. They called us ‘world class’ in February and locked us out in May.”
“Yeah, we were ‘essential’ then, why aren’t we essential now?” Singer added. “This is a huge slap in the face by Exxon.”
At the union hall, Andre Francis, who is African American and head trustee for the USW local, said, “I’m a fourth generation Exxon oil refinery worker. My great-grandfather worked here when there were separate locals for Black and white workers.” He showed me the certificate uniting the two locals into one in 1943, displayed in a glass case in the union hall.
Francis said that much of the food pantry is donated, or “union members who work the pantry go out and find deals on food and purchase it with the donations we receive.”
“We buy meat from a local farmer and had 30,000 pounds processed locally,” he said. The food pantry has big freezers stocked with meat, poultry and fish. One local company donated 250 pounds of rice. Rice farming began in Southeast Texas, where Beaumont is located, in the 1850s.
Despite six months on lockout, strikers are upbeat about their fight and appreciate solidarity they get. Keep it coming! Donations and letters of support can be sent to USW Local 13-243, 2490 South 11th St., Beaumont, TX 77701.