By Rick Hurd 02/02/2015 bayareanewsgroup.com
MARTINEZ — Workers at the Tesoro refinery near Martinez were preparing to strike Monday, after the United Steelworkers union called for members at nine of its plants Sunday to stage their first walkout in more than 30 years.
The strike, the first by the USW since 1980, was set after the union said negotiations with Shell Oil Co. broke down after talks for a new bargaining contract started Jan. 21. The union has rejected four contract offers and maintains that Shell failed to provide a counter offer and left the bargaining table.
The Tesoro Refinery employs 425 union workers, all of whom will strike, according to Jim Payne, a spokesman for the Local 5.
Tesoro Refinery spokeswoman Patty Deutsche said half the plant already was shut down for maintenance and that “the safest operating option for Martinez is to shut down safely the remaining process units.”
Workers at that plant will not picket until all of the units have been shut down and all the workers have exited the plant, Payne said.
“We expect that to be no later than the end of the work day Thursday,” he said.
A news release from the USW said the union was prepared to negotiate past its deadline but that Shell refused to continue. The release also said the union was more concerned with safe staffing issues, health care costs and reliance on outside contractors to handle day-to-day maintenance at the facilities than it was about higher wages.
“It’s also about the fact that at the negotiating table, there’s been an unwillingness by the industry to talk about these issues,” Payne said. “Proposals that address safety and fatigue issues have not been taken seriously.”
Shell is acting as the lead negotiator for the industry and will set the pattern for negotiations involving local unions, The Associated Press reported.
For now, only the nine refineries — most of them in California and Texas — are affected. Other plants with USW members, including the Shell Oil Refinery in Martinez, were operating on a day-to-day 24-hour contract that rolls over each day. Those workers have not yet been told to strike, refinery spokesman Steve Lesher said.
Tesoro Refinery officials “are extremely disappointed” about the strike notification, Deutsche said in an email. According to Payne, the refinery will continue to receive and export crude oil products, but that they won’t produce any of it themselves during the strike.
Nationally, about 3,800 workers at the nine refineries plan to strike.
“We had no choice but to give notice of a work stoppage,” International President Leo W. Gerard said in a statement to The Associated Press.
A Shell representative told AP in an email the company remains “committed to resolving our differences with USW at the negotiating table to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.”
United Steelworkers represents about 30,000 workers at refineries, terminals, petrochemical plants and pipelines across the country. In addition to Tesoro, the union called for a strike at the Marathon Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, Texas, the Shell Deer Park Refinery in Deer Park, Texas, and the Tesoro Carson Refinery in Carson, California, among other locations.
Shell said its Deer Park operation has started strike contingency plans and will continue operations “in the normal course of business.” It did not elaborate on the plans in a brief statement.
The remaining sites not targeted for a strike will operate under contract extensions that renew every 24 hours until one side in the negotiations decides that they have reached an impasse, Hancock said.
She added that negotiators normally reach an agreement on a new deal by the time these national contracts expire, or they extend the contract a few days to continue negotiations.
The strike is the biggest since 1980, when workers went on strike for 93 days.
“It’s absolutely the last resort, and the workers aren’t happy, of course,” Payne said. “But they’re resolved. Historically these are long, and our workers are prepared for that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789 and follow him at Twitter.com/3rderh.