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Striking for safety

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An interview with striking oil workers from the US. Published in the Morning Star, 15th February 2015.

WHEREVER Steve Garey goes, he gets asked if oil has a future. “I’m not an economist, I’m a machinist,” he chuckles when I pose that very question. “Our strike action probably won’t affect the oil price.”

The strike in question is a 5,000-strong walkout of oil refinery workers across the United States which kicked off on February 1.

With the national agreement for conditions and safety standards up for renewal, discussions on a new three-year deal reached a stalemate. It’s the first time in 35 years that it’s come to this.

Top of their menu of grievances was fatigue — and bosses’ attempts to weasel out of contractual protections that put safety first where the law falls short.

Twelve-hour shifts have been regularly extended to 18 and workers are still expected to come back the next day and clock on as normal.

When you’re responsible for channelling an explosive substance, not to mention keeping the lights on, the consequences can be deadly.

Garey works in Anacortes in the state of Washington, for multibillion-dollar refiner and distributor Tesoro.

On Thursday night he was one of a four-strong delegation from the United Steelworkers (USW) union protesting outside the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London. 

Inside, petroleum industry bigwigs tucked into a four-course meal. The star speaker was Royal Dutch Shell chief exec Ben van Buerden — the man who United Steelworkers says holds the key to resolving the dispute as the largest operator in the field.

I met Garey before the evening’s festivities at British general union Unite’s London headquarters.

With him were Michael Rochon, an operator for Shell at Deer Park in Texas, Brandi Sanders, a maintenance worker with Marathon in Texas City and USW official Emil Ramirez.

And while there’s plenty stacked against the US oil workers, in one sense they’re starting from a far stronger place than their British counterparts — their national bargaining structures span across corporations.

Covering last week’s summit on the future of North Sea oil in Aberdeen, I was told by RMT officer Jake Molloy that the absence of such a structure for bargaining hindered British unions immeasurably.

And down in London, privateer bus companies are refusing to collectively negotiate with Unite, saying that would amount to “acting like a cartel.”

But not only have US oil workers done this for many years, Garey says the process is embedded in USW’s own internal structures. 

“Our rank-and-file members at each site are represented at our national conference, where we discuss what needs to be in the contract,” he says.

“Then it goes back to the sites, where it has to be approved by 75 per cent of the members.”

Alongside regional negotiations where site-specific issues are discussed, union reps then meet with an industry negotiator — usually Shell.

“Safety has played a prominent part in many oil negotiation cycles,” says Garey.

“It’s been felt that union members need to take safety into our own hands to get protections in contract terms that we don’t have in federal law.

“What’s changed is there’s recently been an arrogant and dismissive attitude on the part of the industry. It wasn’t that long ago that corporations had a more balanced view of their role in society, but that’s clearly gone.”

Oil is a dangerous business in the US, and no-one knows this more than Sanders.

In 2005 an explosion at the Galveston Bay refinery where she works — then operated by BP — killed 15 workers and injured 170.

Since Marathon took the plant over in 2013, more than 300 jobs have been cut by so-called natural wastage.

Speaking of the wider picture across the US, she says: “Their business practices are extremely sloppy.”

And a focus on immediate profits has led to a skills shortage and an increased risk of accidents.

“Everything’s operating in the now,” she says.

Rochon says understaffing is a problem seen across US refineries.

“When you look at staffing levels, you have the production side, and if it’s designed for 80 people to operate the process, you’d probably have 70 to 65 — with the other 10 to 15 going out and doing other jobs.”

And once again, you’re left with an exhausted workforce.

“We’ve had people at the control boards hitting the wrong keys as a result of fatigue,” he says.

Sanders agrees. Workers can “zone out” after long periods on duty.

“Your brain goes into safe mode,” she says. 

Rochon adds: “We’re paid to respond.” One wrong move can mean “in a couple of seconds you’ve got alarms ringing all over the place.”

Sanders suggests managers’ cavalier attitude to safety is exemplified by their attempts to keep plants going during the strike — in spite of the absence of most of the workforce.

“The supervisors are still manning the facilities — unskilled and untrained,” she says. 

She pulls out her phone and shows me a nighttime photo of a refinery taken since the strike began.

“The sky’s definitely not supposed to be lit up like that,” she says, deadpan.

The delegation won’t be drawn on the next steps, but walkouts at more sites — 11 of a potential 63 are currently out — is an option.

“Potentially 30,000 workers could be affected if we don’t get Shell to respond (with the current level of action),” says Garey.

But the strike also has a deeper importance to the US labour movement, the workers insist. “One of the most potentially positive outcomes will be the ability to teach an entire generation of workers how to stand up and fight back,” Garey says passionately.

Ramirez says press coverage has been “neutral” and often quite favourable, even from hostile newspapers. And communities realise their stake in this too, he says.

“Vendors are going to start putting pressure on Shell. They’re going to be standing with us — we know that.”

The 2012 fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery on San Francisco Bay was a turning point.

After flames and black smoke drifted five miles into the sky, more than 15,000 were hospitalised with respiratory problems.

Thousands marched the following year to protest over safety issues at the site. Richmond’s city council then sued Chevron. “Communities are beginning to understand the risk,” Garey says.

USW members, he says, “inherently understand why they must do this” despite the hardship and financial sacrifice they must face.

“It’s never easy, it never will be easy. But they understand they have a better life because of the struggles of their parents and grandparents. Now it’s their turn.”


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