Steelworkers Strike at Oil Refineries, Slow Down at Ports

By Allen Smith February 6, 2015

Strikes are relatively rare these days, so when one happens it makes the news, as has been the case with the recent United Steelworkers union’s (USW’s) strike at nine oil refineries in several states. What is less frequently reported are new union tactics, such as the work slowdowns that employers say have been occurring at western ports since last fall.

The USW announced a strike on Feb. 1, 2015, at the following refineries:

  • LyondellBasell, Houston.
  • Marathon Galveston Bay Refinery, Texas City, Texas.
  • Marathon Houston Green Cogeneration facility, Texas City, Texas.
  • Marathon Refinery, Catlettsburg, Ky.
  • Shell Deer Park Chemical Plant, Deer Park, Texas.
  • Shell Deer Park Refinery, Deer Park, Texas.
  • Tesoro Anacortes Refinery, Anacortes, Wash.
  • Tesoro Carson Refinery, Carson, Calif.
  • Tesoro Martinez Refinery, Martinez, Calif.

And on Feb. 7, 2015, the union announced that workers at BP's Whiting, Ind., and Toledo, Ohio, refineries are joining the strike.

“Shell refused to provide us with a counteroffer and left the bargaining table,” said USW International President Leo Gerard. “We had no choice but to give notice of a work stoppage.”

“This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it; the industry’s refusal to make opportunities for workers in the trade crafts; the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job; and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire,” said Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program.

“Negotiators from Shell and USW have agreed to recess the National Oil Bargaining talks," Shell Global said in a statement. "This recess has no relation to the status of the negotiations. Shell expects talks to resume with USW in the near future.”

Workers have the right to resign union membership, continue to work and refrain from paying union dues during the USW strike, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

“These days it is very unusual for unions to resort to strikes,” Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler in San Francisco and co-chair of Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute, told SHRM Online. “Of course, the best way to avoid a strike is to plan as if there will be one, so there are usually hidden management costs associated with bargaining preparation, which includes alternatives to the production of goods and the providing of services to minimize disruptions to customers.”

The number of strikes involving 1,000 or more workers peaked in 1952 at 470 strikes with 1.8 million workers involved, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of workers involved in strikes peaked in 1949 at 2.54 million. That compares with 15 strikes in 2013 with 55,000 involved workers.


Strikes may be on the wane, but work slowdowns—allegedly employed by longshoremen at western ports since the fall—are a newly popular union tool.

“Since late October 2014, the ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union] has crippled what were fully productive terminals in the Pacific Northwest and Oakland, [Calif.,] and exacerbated a difficult congestion issue at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by intentionally withholding dozens of essential skilled workers each shift for the past 10 weeks,” the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) said in a press release. The ILWU describes the PMA as “an employer association whose largest members include Denmark-based Maersk Line, Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine, Korean-based Hanjin Shipping, Philippines-based ICTSI, Japan-based NYK Line, Hong Kong-based OOCL, China-based COSCO, and other employers in France, Norway and worldwide.”

“By withholding an average of 75 yard crane drivers each day, the ILWU has stalled the movement of tens of thousands of containers,” the PMA estimates. “Since Nov. 3, the union has reduced these yard crane operator positions in southern California by 67 percent.” The slowdowns have “continued to the point where many terminals are in peril of complete gridlock,” according to the association.

On Feb. 4, 2015, the PMA said it has met the ILWU’s two biggest demands: maintenance of their Cadillac health benefits, which feature no worker premiums, no co-pays, and no deductibles for in-network benefits, and jurisdiction over maintenance and repair of truck chassis.

The ILWU has denied there has been a slowdown. ILWU Union President Robert McEllrath on Feb. 5, 2015, said, “PMA is leaving ships at sea and claiming there’s no space on the docks, but there are acres of asphalt just waiting for the containers on those ships, and hundreds of longshore workers ready to unload them. The employers are deliberately worsening the existing congestion crisis to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table.”

McEllrath added, “What the employers need to do is stay at the negotiating table and work through a few remaining issues with the workers who have made them successful for the past 80 years. We are very close to reaching an agreement.”

“The port situation shows how unions resort to other economic weapons,” Lotito said. “No strike, but a slowdown as they work to the strict contract rules. The result is a massive problem with ships not being unloaded. The administration refuses to intervene despite being asked to do so with a cooling-off order, so the union workers keep getting paid, the work does not get done, the economy suffers, shipping costs escalate and now it appears the parties are getting close to a deal. Why? There is a strong tradition at the ports with union labor, and not many options for getting goods into the country other than by sea.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.


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