Mar 2, 2015
Oil refinery workers belonging to the United Steelworkers Union (USW) began a strike on February 1. By the end of February, 6,500 workers had walked out at 15 oil refineries. While the workers are fighting against such takeaways as a reduction in health benefits, they say their main fight is to reduce overtime and gain a reasonable work schedule.
Like companies everywhere, the big oil companies and refiners have cut so many jobs, understaffing is rampant. To cover all the work, the companies have been forcing those who are left to slave away on 12 hour shifts with few days off. Even when the companies grant time off, they still require workers to be on-call, that is, be available to come in to work at a moment’s notice. And since schedules often alternate between days and graveyard, workers’ sleep and waking lives are constantly being disrupted.
These work schedules are inhuman and they have left workers exhausted, anxiety-ridden. It has ruined their family and social life, destroyed their health and taken years off their life.
Moreover, forcing exhausted, fatigued workers to operate and maintain giant refineries turns their workplaces into ticking time bombs that explode periodically. Government regulators officially concluded that “worker fatigue” was one of the main reasons for the giant explosion at the BP Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers in 2005. No doubt fatigue played a role in an explosion on February 18 at an Exxon-Mobil refinery outside Los Angeles. Officials say it was practically a miracle that “only” four workers were injured, as flames, harmful gases and ash were shot into the air and earthquake-like shock waves shook the giant refinery, as well as the surrounding homes, schools and buildings in the heavily populated neighborhood.
The strikers are also fighting against another pet practice by the oil companies: rampant outsourcing to temp agencies. Outsourcing provides the oil companies with a low wage workforce that comes and goes on the command of the company. The strikers point out just how dangerous this is. Since temps have few, if any rights on the job, the boss can more easily force them to hurry up the work or do more dangerous work. This is made worse by their lack of experience in the specific workplace.
What oil companies and refiners are doing is not any different from what companies and employers are doing absolutely everywhere, from public to private employers, from industry to services to schools and health care.
The big difference is that the refinery workers have chosen to fight against it, and their union has finally called a strike. This is extremely important.
But 6,500 strikers are going up against some of the biggest and richest companies in the world. Royal Dutch Shell, the company leading the contract bargaining for the oil industry, has operations in more than 70 countries and annual sales that approach half a trillion dollars. Another company, Exxon-Mobil, is even bigger! Besides that, the oil companies are tightly connected to the banks, and their interests are protected by governments worldwide, starting with the U.S. government.
To go up against this monster, the refinery workers need forces much greater than their own.
Those forces are in other refineries, factories, offices, hospitals, schools, in every city and town. Because workers everywhere are facing the same problems.
Of course, employers use all kinds of barriers to keep workers from uniting together, including contracts, courts and injunctions. That is why workers will have to ignore contract dates and whether or not they are in the same union and all the other barriers.
We will have to decide that we have to put our needs and interests first. They are a matter of life and death for us. When we do, we will find the way to join together so that we can meet the corporate giants head on.