Oil giants and USW seek concessions at last refineries still on strike

By Marcus Day
13 April 2015

Negotiators for the oil companies and the United Steelworkers (USW) are seeking to conclude pro-corporate agreements at the handful of refineries which remain on strike in the US. Around 3,000 workers have not yet returned to work at facilities run by Marathon, BP, and LyondellBasell in Ohio, Indiana and Texas.

The details that have emerged of the local contracts being worked out underscore the depth of the betrayal of workers by the USW, which isolated the strike from the beginning in early February to only a small fraction of the 63 refineries it represents. The USW—whose president, Leo Gerard, sits on the White House’s corporate competitiveness board charged with cutting labor costs—worked throughout the strike to prevent workers from mobilizing throughout the entire industry and coming into conflict with the Democratic Party and the Obama administration (see: Indiana “solidarity” rally promotes Democrats, covers up USW betrayal of oil workers’ strike).

On such a basis, the union reached a national agreement with Shell, which bargained on behalf of the oil industry, on March 13. Despite claims by Gerard and the pseudo-left supporters of the unions, such as the International Socialist Organization, the deal was no “victory.” On the contrary, it did nothing to address workers’ demands for improved safety, better staffing and reduced overtime.

Since the national framework was reached, the companies have been given a free hand to escalate their demands for concessions, as the remaining strikers have been further isolated and exhausted after months on the picket line—with only the most meager, if any, financial assistance from the union.

Where disagreements over the contracts remain, it is generally over whether the oil companies will grant any benefits to the union apparatus itself, including expanding joint union-management committees in charge of staffing levels or safety oversight. Such organizations do nothing to hold the companies genuinely to account but provide a layer of union bureaucrats with lucrative positions.

At BP, whose facilities in Whiting, Indiana and Toledo, Ohio remain on strike, company spokesman Doug Sparkman stated in a letter to employees Friday, “Through dozens of formal negotiation sessions and countless informal discussions and telephone calls, we have successfully reached tentative agreements on 33 items at Whiting and on 36 items at Toledo.”

Speaking about the company’s demands to have unilateral control over safety procedures, Sparkman said, “We have been consistent and clear with the local unions that these issues are things we need in place to remain competitive with others in the industry.”

BP also announced it planned to restart a 60,000-barrel-per-day production unit at Whiting, which failed catastrophically at the beginning of March. The fluid catalytic unit, also known as a cat cracker, suffered a motor fire, one of a number of incidents at the Whiting facility, including several gas flare-ups, revealing the recklessness of the oil companies in continuing to run the refineries with under-trained management and salaried employees.

Although bringing the unit back on-line is a dangerous procedure under the best conditions, the company plans to proceed with the operation using their replacement workers.

At Marathon’s Galveston Bay refinery in Texas City, where a 2005 explosion killed 15 and injured more than 170, the company is seeking to eliminate the voluntary changes to safety procedures which were implemented after the accident.

Safety issues have plagued the refinery recently, demonstrating that the “reforms” themselves were of a superficial character. Federal investigations have been conducted because of workers’ complaints at the Galveston Bay refinery. In December, regulators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) examined health and safety record keeping practices, and in February, operator training procedures and a silica catalyst release were reviewed.

Negotiators for Houston-based LyondellBasell have also taken a harder line after the national agreement. Company representatives last month walked out of negotiations so abruptly that the union bargaining committee “thought they were just taking a break.”

Despite the continued isolation of the strike by the USW, there nevertheless remains significant opposition among workers to the dictates of the corporations. At Marathon’s Catlettsburg, Kentucky facility, for example, although 226 voted to accept the contract, 153 voted against it.

While the oil companies have insisted they don’t have the resources to meet the basic needs of their workforces, they are spending vast sums of money to enrich their executives and large shareholders. Last Wednesday, Shell announced it was spending some $70 billion to acquire Britain’s BG Group—about 50 percent above the company’s most recent closing price—in the biggest deal in the energy sector in over a decade. The companies were already the two biggest producers of liquefied natural gas in the world prior to the merger.

As much of the global economy remains mired in deflation and slump, analysts have predicted that the Shell-BG deal could serve as a catalyst for a new wave of mergers and acquisitions among the energy conglomerates. “This could mark the beginning of an M&A rave, much like the one we saw in the late 1990s,” according to an Accendo Markets analysis reported in USA Today. “A flexible, resilient group of oil majors who can borrow at low costs has led many to believe that 2015 will be a ripe year for acquisitions.”

This would entail the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs, along with the further consolidation of political and economic power in an industry that is already characterized by a high degree of monopoly.

Workers both in the oil industry and elsewhere must draw the necessary conclusions from the experience of the oil strike: in the struggle for better working conditions or an improvement in living standards, the trade unions stand wholly on the side of the corporations. They serve as a labor police force, smothering the class struggle, dividing and isolating workers, and forcing through the bosses’ demands.

In order for workers to secure any of their rights—such as a decent-paying job, a safe workplace, free healthcare, or a secure retirement—it is necessary to build new fighting organizations, independent of and in opposition to the unions. Rank-and-file committees must be organized, as part of a broader industrial mobilization of the working class.

Above all, it is necessary to understand that workers confront a political struggle against the oil giants, their paid political servants in both big business parties and the capitalist profit system they defend. For this a mass political movement is needed to unite workers in the US and internationally on the basis of a socialist program, including putting the global energy industry under the democratic control of the working class.

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