- Reporters Desk
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Workers at 11 oil refineries in Texas, Kentucky, California, Washington, Ohio and Indiana walked out of their jobs demanding safer staffing and better health benefits.
On Feb. 7, the oil workers organized a solidarity rally at the Tesoro refinery in Carson. Hundreds turned out in support. However, the biggest challenge for United Steelworkers union is explaining the work of the oil workers and the dangers that are involved when equipment or untrained, nonunion workers fail.
United Steelworkers local presidents, organizers and spokespersons have been launching rallies and speaking on the radio to explain the issues.
In a radio interview with NPR, USW President of Local 12-591 Steve Garry explained that the bargaining goals are focused on safety.
“If you know a little bit about the history of [National] Oil Bargaining, you would know that safety has been a primary focus for quite some time,” Garry said. “We’ve experienced far too many tragic accidents, serious injuries and fires.”
National Oil Bargaining is an industry-wide bargaining program that sets the standards for improvements in pay, key benefits, and health and safety standards across the oil industry.
Garry noted that bargaining goals are focused on safety and worker fatigue—fatigue that is a result of low staff levels.
The majority of workers are operations workers. They use the equipment, monitor the plants, open and shut valves, make adjustments and do troubleshooting. Other workers are maintenance workers who troubleshoot and repair the machinery, and test and monitor equipment.
“Inspection and maintenance planning, and procedure planning are things companies need to be responsible for,” Garry said. “Corporations don’t like to discuss those details. The fact is these changes are expensive, especially for corporations aiming to maximize their bottom line. These are some of the wealthiest corporations in the world.”
Garry noted that oil companies use contract workers to make up for the shortfall in staffing. The union noted that these workers aren’t as well-trained or well-versed in the safety protocols required to work in the refineries.
Garry also noted that fires and leaks are regular occurrences at many of the refineries, while explosions, though rare, are deadly when they occur.
One of the USW’s more urgent demands is to give workers the authority to stop working because of unsafe conditions. The California Nurses Association joined the picket line in solidarity with the union on Feb. 12.
In a statement, National Nurses United said it is “especially alarmed at the serious threat for workers and residents of local communities near the refineries posed by unsafe staffing levels, excessive worker overtime demands, and the reports of daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that put tens of thousands of people in danger.”
“Nurses are on the front lines in the fight against asthma and these other chronic diseases that can be triggered by these toxic emissions at refineries,” said the association’s board member Katy Roemer, an Oakland registered nurse. “We think it’s important to picket in solidarity with the refinery workers not just to show our support for them, but also to expand the reach of our work as patient advocates.
“Protecting public safety as well as that of the workers is why it is so vital for workers to have a strong voice on the job through collective bargaining. Democracy shouldn’t end at the front door to your workplace.”
There have been several reports of injuries at the Martinez refinery, including two within a month in 2014. On Feb. 12, also in 2014, an alkylation unit involved in gasoline production was shut at the 166,000 barrel-per-day plant after it spewed sulfuric acid, injuring two workers. Three weeks later, the same unit spewed acid again, injuring two more workers.
The plant’s 400 striking workers—machinists, mechanics, maintenance workers, pipe fitters and refinery operators—are represented by the United Steelworkers Union.
National Nurses United also supports the USW fight against subcontracting of union jobs and other contract standards that are a part of this dispute.