Oil workers in the Bay Area fight over long hours, low pay

By Betsey Stone
April 11, 2022

RICHMOND, Calif. — “Why are workers here angry? It’s the lack of respect, the arrogance of the company,” striker Frank Aguirre told this Militant worker-correspondent March 27 as I joined him picketing outside the Chevron oil refinery here. The workers went on strike six days earlier, fighting over onerous work schedules, safety and wages.

Aguirre, who has worked at Chevron for 17 years, said the strike battle has been building up for some time. “We were working out here through the pandemic while managers were working from home,” he said. “The company wasn’t maintaining equipment. Then there’s the medical plan that forced me to pay $5,000 out of pocket.”

The last straw was the company’s hard-ball tactics, when after workers twice rejected Chevron’s proposals the company refused to return to the bargaining table. The bosses brought in “replacements” hours before the strike began and bused the unionists out of the refinery, while placing cop cars near the employee parking lot. “I’ve been working here for 30 years and I’ve never seen it so bad,” striker Marc Busby said.

The workers, members of Local 5 of the United Steelworkers, are asking for a wage raise that would offset the rising cost of medical bills, as well as give some relief from soaring prices and the high cost of living in the Bay Area. They want the company to hire more workers, to end operators being forced to work as much as 60 to 70 hours a week.

“Workers are fatigued and we’re understaffed. We’re falling further behind,” Local 5 spokesperson and refinery operator B.K. White told the press. It’s a safety question, he said.

The USW reached a national agreement with the oil industry in February that included wage raises of 12% over four years. Since then over  200 union locals have been negotiating over local issues, like at Chevron. They’re asking for a one-time bump raise of 5% over the wage increase in the national contract.

Bosses at the largest oil and gas companies raked in over $174 billion last year, the union reports. Chevron reports $15.6 billion in annual profits, while sticking it to refinery workers as well as to drivers at the gas stations. Gas prices in California have risen to well over $5 a gallon in the wake of the war in Ukraine and charges in the capitalist press that the strike will push prices higher.

“I tell people it’s corporate greed that is responsible for what you are paying at the pump,” striker Gerardo “Chop” Chavez told the Militant. “It’s corporate greed that’s behind the cost of health care and the lack of safety.”

Chavez, a regular on the picket line, became active in the union when his wife, a welder at Chevron, was forced to work with dangerous fumes while pregnant. After getting nowhere when she complained to management, he said, the union won her a safer position.

He said workers from the Teamsters and other unions have joined the picket line, and people have brought food and other donations. Passing cars, especially big-rig trucks, honk in support.

Chevron bosses have agreed to new talks beginning March 28, and the Central Labor Council of Contra Costa County has called for workers throughout the area to “Stand with USW Local 5” at their picket line at refinery gate 14 the same day from 4-6 p.m.