By Paul Krehbiel
One thousand refinery workers, their families, and community supporters protested at Tesoro Oil Company on 225th St. in Carson, CA on Sat. Feb. 7 demanding a safe workplace and community. The members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675 say unsafe practices involving explosive and toxic material inside the refinery threaten thousands in the area. It was one of scores of protests at refineries across the US as part of an oil workers strike at 11 refineries which began Feb. 1. They’re in TX, WA, KY, OH, IN, and CA. USW has members at 70 refineries and refines 64% of US fuel output. More workers could join the strike if it continues. As we went to press, a toxic explosion rocked a refinery in nearby Torrance, underlining the importance of the demands.
USW called the national strike after industry negotiator Shell Oil walked out of contract talks. The industry can afford to correct the health and safety problems. Shell earned $19 billion in 2014, triple 2012 profits. Shell and ExxonMobil received $800 million in tax breaks. Both spend millions to block environmental and public health laws.
Issues revolve around union efforts to restore safety in refineries and nearby communities. This stoppage is about onerous overtime, unsafe staffing, dangerous conditions, daily …fires, emissions, leaks, and explosions that threaten local communities, said Gary Beevers, USW International VP for national oil bargaining, and ìflagrant contracting out that impacts health and safetyî due to inadequately trained subcontractors. This is worsening, the union says.
Oil refining is one of the most hazardous jobs in the US. In 2012, 138 oil workers were killed on the job, and many more injured, more than doubling 2009 totals. In 2005, an explosion ripped through a British Petroleum (BP) facility in Texas City, TX, killing 15 workers and injuring many. That plants is being struck. BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, injured many, and created an environmental disaster. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club support the strikers.
In 2007, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inspectors found over 1,000 violations in refineries. In 2009, inspectors cited a Tesoro facility in WA for 17 serious OSHA violations, but the company did little to correct them. A year later an explosion there killed 5 and injured many others. The blast shook houses miles away, and chemicals spewed out. Steve Garey, president of that USW local said, ì[We] lost 14 members in 16 years. Weíre tired of co-workers being killed and subjected to this risk. They’re on strike.
In Carson, striking pipefitter Jason LaBella said, We’ve had to work 16 to 19 days straight. The company wants to control our work schedule. We’re tired of dying and of being sick. Norm Rogers, a worker who focuses on health and safety for USW 675 and is on the negotiating team, said conditions are unsafe. We have a fatigued workforce, he said. We work rotating 12 hour shifts. Rogers said, That’s when accidents happen, even to the most highly trained people. Management are in the plant trying to keep it going, but haven’t had near the training we’ve had. We’ve had 3-4 years; they’ve had a couple days. Knowing the equipment and being tired is one thing. Not knowing it is [something else].
LaBella said, The community’s in danger… The company puts profits over safety. Dave Campbell, Sec.-Treas. of USW Local 675, told the crowd, We’re fighting for jobs. Weíre fighting for the safety of the community. This is about the future of the working class. Support the refinery workers by contacting USW Local 695 at 310-522-2284.