Holding the Line Against Big Oil

OilStrikeBP.jpg

The big issues in a strike by 6,500 oil refinery workers around the U.S. have been settled as part of a tentative agreement between the United Steelworkers (USW) and oil giant Shell, which will set a pattern for contracts covering a total of 30,000 workers around the U.S. But with local issues unresolved, workers are still on the picket lines.

On the main questions, the union held its ground, winning modest pay increases, preserving an 80 percent/20 percent health care cost-sharing formula, and forcing management to negotiate with the union over staffing levels and outsourcing, rather than simply imposing them. At a time when unions are retreating on these issues, the oil workers have held the line against some of the world's most powerful corporations.

Although bargaining is shaped by the national pattern, the companies are still trying to twist local agreements in their favor. For example, BP, which is squaring off against workers at its huge complex in Whiting, Indiana, wants a "management rights" clause in the proposed contract, which would give management the ability to override traditional contract protections.

Having gone on strike in just part of the industry--a move that USW leaders claimed was necessary to avoid government intervention--the union gave up some of its leverage. Now it will be up to USW locals to turn the pattern agreement into acceptable contract language.

So the fight continues. And when you walk inside the United Steelworkers Local 7-1 union hall in Whiting, you instantly understand how the 1,100 strikers at the BP refinery have maintained a virtually 100 percent solid strike.

Alongside the wreath over the riser and podium and the Christmas lights--no one had taken them down before the strike began in Whiting on February 8, and there have been more important things to do since then--is a "Solidarity Board" with message of support. To the left is a big red banner that declares: "RAT NOTICE: Anyone with knowledge of a USW member crossing the picket line must notify a Union Board Member."

A glance around the hall shows the handiwork of people who are used to being precise. The workers accustomed to handling highly toxic substances like benzene and flammable oil products have transformed their hall into an efficient operations center. Portable plastic shelves hold food that has been systematically categorized and neatly arrayed: canned goods, cereal, chips, Ramen noodles--lots of Ramen noodles--hot dog and burger buns. A well-stocked coffee station--a critical supply, given that the strike coincided with record cold temperatures--occupies a large space.

Overhead are handwritten statements of solidarity from the Chicago Teachers Union and low-wage workers from that city's Fight for 15 campaign. A placard from Chicago-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 is full of signatures from members. This is what a well-run strike looks like.

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IT'S MID-MORNING on March 12--a day before the USW reached a tentative agreement with Shell Oil to set a national pattern for the industry--and about a dozen people are gathered in the union hall to check in and sign up for a two-hour stint on the picket line or some other task.

The hall manager that day was Ebony Parker, an EMT in the plant, tasked with attending to anyone injured. In just a year on the job, she's seen the many risks at the plant up close, transporting a couple of workers to a trauma center for injuries suffered on the job.

"This is real life here," she said. "I've been here for the release [of oil products] into Lake Michigan, several big fires, and August 27 for the explosion," Parker said, recalling the blast last year that shook houses in the small town of Whiting and shut down a major thoroughfare nearby. "If we don't help ourselves to get this safety issue taken care of, the next explosion may be last one. There are too many lives in jeopardy."

Although BP is Parker's first union job, getting into the plant was a labor movement homecoming of sorts. Her grandmother was a steelworker and member of USW Local 1010, and her mother is a home health care worker and member of Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois-Indiana. She walked picket lines and attended labor events as a kid, and knew the advantages of working union. She sought a job at the BP refinery for seven years. When the offer finally came, she gladly left behind her work as a nonunion EMT.

"What do the say? Union-bred, union-fed," Parker said, checking the assignment boards to make sure picket lines were covered and organizational tasks carried out. If the kitchen--normally working only during union events--needs a cook, it's her job to find someone to handle the assignment. Or maybe it's the "woodchucks"--strikers responsible for chopping and delivering firewood to burn barrels--who are shorthanded. If so, Parker's job for the day is to round up someone to fill in.

It was fairly warm outside--the first warm days after a bitterly cold winter--but the wood got cut and the fires tended anyway. A cold snap was inevitable--and besides, the activity helps fill the time. It's grunt work, but no one complained. Instead, they revved up the electric saw, ribbing each other to keep up their spirits.

Read more at Socialist Worker.


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