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USA : Motiva, USW negotiate contract while preparing for strike

Roger Cowles

USW members picket

Troy Deriso, left, and Robert Castilaw, members of United Steel Workers Local 13-423, picket at the Savannah

Avenue gate of the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Port Arthur.

USW Hall

Sherry Koonce

USW Hall

United Steel Workers union members gathered at the USW Local 13 423 Friday in Port Arthur in preparation of a long night of contract negotiations.

Posted: Friday, February 20, 2015 7:42 pm

USW union goes on strike against Motiva in Port Arthur

United Steelworkers Union local went on strike against the Motiva Enterprises Port Arthur refinery when the union's contract with the refiner expired at midnight Friday night, putting about 800 union members and other workers off the job.

Members of Local 13-423 walking a picket line on Savannah Avenue in front of a Motiva gate said the union plans a rally at 11 a.m. to show solidarity in strike support. The strikers said the union will not sign a contract that does not protect rights the union has ought for and gained over the years and protection of the labor contract in the event the refinery were sold.

The USW began the strike by posting pickets at 11 refiners and chemical companies on Feb. 1, when those labor agreements expired. None of the Golden Triangle plants were affected at that time.

In a text message Saturday morning, the USW announced plans to expand the strike to Motiva facilities at Convent, La., and Norco, La., and to the Shell Chemical Plant at Norco.

This is the first time since 1982 that U.S. oil workers have walked off their jobs to protest working conditions.

“It is our intent to do everything to avoid a work stoppage, but in the event that there is no movement, we have to make a decision what to do, give a rolling extension, or go on strike,” Richard “Hoot” Landry, USW International Representative said Friday at the Port Arthur USW Hall.

More than 5,000 USW workers since Feb. 1 have opted to strike, walking out of a chemical plant, a cogeneration complex and nine U.S. refineries that produce 13 percent of the nation’s fuel capacity.

On Thursday, industry represented by Royal Dutch Shell presented a seventh offer to the National Oil Bargaining Program Policy Committee. The new offer,  which contained only minor changes from those offered previously, was unanimously rejected and the NOBP urged the locals on 24-hour extensions to prepare to join the strike if called upon.

Other local refineries and chemical plants including Chevron Chemical and Clerical, Valero Refinery and Clerical, Exxon Mobile Refinery and BP, as well Chevron PADC continue working under 24-hour rolling contract extensions.

On Friday, many eyes were on Port Arthur’s Motiva plant not only because of its size — the nation’s largest refinery — but also because of its owners.

Motiva is  a 50–50 joint venture between Shell Oil Company Saudi Aramco.

“They are certainly an important piece of the puzzle since we are having discussions with Shell, so yes, they are a major piece of the puzzle,” Landry said.

According to a Feb. 19 press statement released by the USW, the latest contract proposal did not address union proposals for life saving safety improvements in any sort of meaningful or enforceable way.

National Oil Policy Committee members were in The Golden Triangle Thursday night talking with Motiva union workers in Port Arthur and those at Exxon Mobil in Beaumont about the decision to strike as a push back against the industry’s unfair labor practices and its failure to seriously engage the union around proposals for life saving safety improvements.

Landry said the sticking point in contract negotiations was safety related to contract workers who are not adequately trained to handle dangerous working conditions.

Since 1983 — a year after the last union strike that lasted three months — industry has increasingly moved toward the use of a contract labor force, Landry said.

Though contractors have had some safety training, it is not to the degree that company employees have. Nor, are contractors, who are often working for a short time period in one location, as familiar with the plant they are working in.

Another safety issue, Landry said, is contractors who hire large percentages of workers who do not speak English.

“The biggest problem with a contractor is when we identify a unit upset or leak, we can immediately react. Contractors can see the same thing and not be alarmed because they are not trained to know what is going on,” Landry said.

By Friday, both parties were back at the bargaining table, Lynn Hancock, USW National spokesperson, said.

In the event of a possible strike, both local industry and union workers have made preparations.

Though Motiva company representatives had not discussed what they were doing in preparation, Landry said tents have been erected inside the company gates.

“It is pretty obvious the tents are housing for people to stay in  the refinery and work,” Landry said.

Union workers have brought in what they call a “picket shack,” and stationed it across from Motiva gates on Savannah Avenue.

“It’s just what we do at the 11th hour,” Landry said, adding that similar activities were ongoing at Exxon Mobil.

Motiva is optimistic that a mutually-satisfactory agreement can be negotiated with labor unions, Ray Fisher, Motiva spokesman, said in an e-mail Friday.

“While we remain hopeful that agreements will be reached, we have contingency plans in place to ensure continued, safe operations in the event a strike is called,” Fisher said.

In anticipation of a work stoppage, Motiva company representatives have met with Union representatives to establish gates that union workers would be allowed to picket including company locations at Savannah and 25th Street, Port Arthur terminal, the Seventh Street tank farm and Seventh Street reservoir.

“Nobody is ready to strike, but we are going to do whatever we need to do to be successful in this line of bargaining. This is about protecting people at work in the refinery, and we have an obligation to protect the community around the refineries.” Landry said.

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Posted in on Friday, February 20, 2015 7:42 pm.

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