Climate

First Nationwide Oil Worker Strike In Decades Grows Even Bigger

CREDIT: flickr/Joey Lax-Salinas

Aerial photo of the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana.

On Sunday, workers at two BP oil refineries in Ohio and Indiana walked out as part of a nationwide oil worker strike being led by the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Citing unfair labor practices and dangerous conditions, including leaks and explosions, the approximately 1,440 workers will join nearly 4,000 that began striking a week ago on February 1.

The first nationwide strike by oil refinery workers since 1980, the addition of BP’s Whiting, Indiana, refinery and the company’s joint-venture refinery with Husky Energy in Toledo, Ohio, brings the total number of plants with strikers to 11, including refineries accounting for about 13 percent of total U.S. oil refining capacity. The original strike included workers in California, Kentucky, Texas and Washington.

The USW called for the strike after talks broke down with Shell Oil, which is leading the industry-wide bargaining effort. It comes at an already tumultuous time as plummeting oil prices have given rise to a heated debate over the future of an industry that relies on extracting cheap and plentiful resources from the ground. This precipitous drop in crude oil prices by over 60 percent since June has caused companies to lay off workers and delay plans for expansion; what they see as the most painless means of avoiding profit cuts. The strike is not expected to impact gas prices.

In a statement, USW International President Leo W. Gerard said the oil industry is long overdue in addressing many of the issues that directly impact workers’ health and safety.

“Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them,” said Gerard.

USW represents about 30,000 workers at more than 200 refineries, terminals, and pipelines across the country. A full USW strike could disrupt as much as 64 percent of U.S. fuel output, according to Bloomberg. Right now the USW is negotiating for a new national contract at 63 plants.

While Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said the companies “remain committed to resolving the remaining issues through collective bargaining at the bargaining table,” temporary replacement workers have been hired to continue operating all but one of the plants.

According to USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program (NOBP), Shell has also failed to accept “no-retrogression” language in the contracts requiring the acceptance of previous industry agreements.

“We will not relinquish 50 years of progress in NOBP bargaining,” said Beevers.

Beevers cited “flagrant contracting” as having a negative impact on health and safety. The most common causes for oil and gas accidents include failure to provide proper training to new employees and failure to properly implement and update safety procedures.

In January there were at least four major mishaps at a U.S. pipelines that resulted in costly explosions or spills. In 2013, Texas led the country in oil and gas sector fatalities with 106. Overall, oil and gas workers are six times more likely to die on the job than average Americans. With the recent growth of the industry due to the proliferation of new drilling techniques such as fracking, safety measures can suffer. In North Dakota, which has been at the forefront of the oil boom, the fatality rate for industry workers was three times the national average in 2013.

On Friday, the local Toledo union posted on its Facebook page that the “strike is NOT about money, this is about addressing safety issues that have been ignored for way too long … 138 workers were killed on the job while extracting, producing, or supporting oil and gas in 2012 … the number was more than double that of 2009.”