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Union strike over US refinery safety enters second month

03 March 2015

The largest US refinery strike since 1980 continued through its 31st day on March 3 with no immediate prospect of resolution, although negotiations between the USW union and lead oil company negotiator Shell Oil are due to resume on March 4. The strike has resulted in a walkout by 6,550 union workers at 15 plants, including 12 refineries accounting for one-fifth of US domestic capacity.

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Talks for a new three-year contract covering 30,000 USW members at refineries and chemical plants broke off in late February, after which the USW ordered strikes at three Motiva Enterprises refineries, which are co-owned by Shell.

The companies affected have called on temporary replacement workers to keep plants running at nearly normal levels.

Meanwhile, USW (originally the United Steel Workers union, but now representing workers in many process industries) has signed an agreement with NABTU (North America's Building Trades Unions), which represents workers who build and overhaul refinery units. NABTU members will respect USW picket lines and not perform work that had been done by striking workers.

USW says it is seeking to retain safety provisions from previous contracts and wants to tighten fatigue standards for workers, as well as win back daily maintenance jobs now done by non-union contractors.

The union says the explosion at the Torrance refinery on February 18, which injured four workers, fits into a long pattern of safety problems in the oil and gas industry, and operators must agree to raise standards.

A report in the LA Times says at least 50 workers have died in US refinery incidents since 2007. During the same period, according to USW, a fire or explosion has put refinery workers and communities at risk twice a month, on average, at facilities across the nation.

Shell and other companies have said the strike came about because of the union's insistence on replacing the non-union contractors with USW members, which would impair management's flexibility in refinery staffing.

Only one refinery, Tesoro Corp's 166,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) Martinez, California, plant has shut, due in part to the strike. The Martinez refinery was due to undergo a multi-unit overhaul closing down half its production prior to the strike. Tesoro decided to shut the entire refinery but has said it would resume production once the overhaul is completed.

USW members work at more than 200 US oil terminals, pipelines, refineries and chemical plants.

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