After 10-month lockout, Texas oil workers vote up contract

By Alyson Kennedy
March 14, 2022

BEAUMONT, Texas — After a punishing 10-month lockout by ExxonMobil bosses at their refinery and processing plant here, members of United Steelworkers Local 13-243 approved the latest company contract offer 214 to 133. Over 600 workers were locked out May 1, 2021, after refusing to accept a union-gutting contract.

“Big Oil doesn’t let up. They took from us in 2015 and now again in 2022,” Terrence Walls, who voted to reject the contract, told the Militant. Walls has worked in the blending and packaging plant for seven years. “I saw this lockout coming and I prepared. It is basically the same contract from the start. I can see why many voted to accept it, because they have to feed their families. I’m not upset with the way people voted.”

Small changes were made to the bosses’ original proposal, including acceptance of the union’s demands to add Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday and to separate some job classifications for different jobs.

ExxonMobil bosses will now get the power to make all job assignments. Previously 25% of the jobs were bid jobs, determined by seniority. Union members who work in the blending and packaging plant will no longer be able to bid on jobs in the refinery. The contract also eliminates lead or A-operators, jobs that advanced workers’ ability to affect safety conditions.

One key problem the workers here faced was that in the 2015 contract the Beaumont plant was removed from national oil pattern bargaining. “Once they start culling you from the herd, they take you down one by one. If we had not been taken off pattern, we would not be here today,” said Sue Little, a retired member of USW 13-243 and member of the Sabine Area Central Labor Council.

The union is an amalgamated local and includes the American Valve and Hydrant plant, which is where Little worked for many years. Little attended many of the ExxonMobil rallies and worked to build support during the lockout.

Solidarity like this from around the country enabled the local to set up a well-stocked food pantry at the union hall that helped sustain the fight. The workers kept up 24/7 picket lines and organized several broader rallies.

“I have three children and a beautiful wife at home, and I’m trying to feed and take care of them,” worker Andrew Golden told the press. “It’s kind of hard to do when you get used to basing your life on a certain wage and then you get pushed off it. So, for me I feel the right thing to do is to come through and go ahead and vote ‘yes’ on the contract.”

“After 10 months, people’s opinions start changing on what’s important and what’s not,” United Steelworkers representative Bryan Gross said. “The union’s been in that facility for almost 80 years, the contract has been in place and we’re going to continue being there and we’re going to continue to fight the good fight.”

Ja’ray Malone, who works in the blending and packaging plant, told the Militant, “Whatever you love about your job, the union got it. The union fought for these things. It is all about profit and control for Exxon.”

During the lockout, some pro-company workers filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to decertify the union and a vote was held. But in December the union filed a challenge to the petition, saying ExxonMobil violated NLRB rules by promising workers they would end the lockout if they voted to decertify the union. It also said the oil bosses weren’t providing the union with necessary information. The NLRB has refused to count the votes until these outstanding charges are resolved.

At the same time, negotiations are still continuing between the USW and Marathon Petroleum over a pattern contract covering some 30,000 oil workers across the country. Besides Marathon, the largest oil refiner in the U.S., the pattern agreement covers ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Phillips 66, Shell and Valero.