Oil Workers strike for improved wages and working conditions, 2015

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Time Period:  
1 February
12 March
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Torrance, California
Location Description: 
Refineries in 19 cities across the United States
employers stop hiring non-union workers, add safety measures, and improve wages and healthcare.

The United Steelworkers (USW) strikes came after decades of cordial
relations between the USW-affiliated unions and the national oil
companies. However, between the previous agreement between the USW and
employers in 2012 and February 2015, refiners’ shares more than doubled.
Meanwhile, workers’ wages and benefits remained stagnant.

Moreover, falling oil prices in the final months of 2014 caused oil
refiners to attempt to cut costs, prompting safety concerns among
workers and the communities around the oil refineries. Companies
contracted non-union workers with less training for lower wages than
their union counterparts while also cutting the number of staff. These
changes forced workers already working 12-hour shifts to take on more
overtime. In further cost-cutting attempts, companies weakened safety
measures. The USW union said that overtime, fatigue, and hiring of
non-union workers without training were exacerbating risks of mistakes,
which could lead to deadly accidents affecting workers and the
communities around the refineries.

During January 2015, the USW attempted to reach an agreement with
employers on a new contract that would stop cuts in staff, provide
better healthcare for workers, and stop the hiring of non-union contract
workers. After failing to reach an agreement with employers, the USW
began a strike on 1 February at nine refineries in California, Kentucky,
Texas and Washington. These nine refineries combined made up 10 percent
of U.S. refining capacity, making the strike the largest refinery
strike in over 30 years. Workers at all other USW-operated sites
continued to work under 24-hour contract extensions.

In addition to the strike, the workers and supporters led guerilla film
screenings and daily rallies at the refineries and around the country at
refinery operators’ headquarters. A group of workers travelled to
Europe and partnered with the British union UNITE and Divest London to
demonstrate outside a venue where Shell CEO Ben van Buerden delivered a
speech in London. After ExxonMobil continued to refuse to respond to
questions about the health impacts of an explosion in February at the
Torrance, California refinery, the USW Local 675 delivered a pile of
horse manure to ExxonMobil office.

Within a week, the strike had slight effects on the production.
Companies brought in non-union workers to replace striking workers and
prevent production shortfalls that threatened to create declines in
profit. Nevertheless, gasoline prices slightly rose as a result of the

On 8 February, one week into the strike, the USW expanded the strike to
two more refineries in Ohio, involving 1,440 more workers and 13 percent
of United States oil refining capacity. As Shell and the other refinery
companies Shell represented in the negotiations continued to resist,
more workers joined the strike. By early March, 7000 workers were on
strike, affecting 19 refineries including nation’s largest refinery in
Port Arthur, Texas.

The USW workers emphasized collaboration with the local community,
recognizing that worker safety was closely connected to community
safety. Environmental and climate groups including the Louisiana Bucket
Brigade, the Sierra Club, Communities for a Better Environment, and
Labor Network for Sustainability, joined picketing union members. An
accidental explosion at ExxonMobil’s Torrance, California refinery on 18
February that shattered windows, damaged buildings, and injured four
workers underscored health and safety concerns among workers and
community members.

As the employers refused to accede to workers’ demands, frustration
among unions grew, and the 13-1 local USW union, which represented
workers striking at Shell's Deer Park, Texas Refinery, organized a march
with several hundred workers on 6 March in an attempt to meet with
Shell negotiators who had ceased negotiations with USW two weeks before.
The workers attempted to enter Shell’s headquarters, but police blocked

After six-weeks of failed negotiations, the USW came to a national
agreement with employers on 12 March, 2015 after three consecutive days
of meetings. The employers refused to agree to any proposal that
involved wage hikes, but accepted modest wage gains in line with rises
in cost of living. Moreover, the agreement called for the involvement of
USW personnel in the review of staffing, workload assessments, and
daily maintenance at plants. In order to appease USW concerns over
untrained and non-union workers taking union jobs, the employers agreed
to develop hiring plans “in conjunction with recruitment and training
programs.” The National Oil Bargaining Policy Committee, a rank-and-file
union group, unanimously supported the agreement, though some local
plants and unions continued negotiations after the national employers
and unions reached an agreement.

Research Notes
Aronoff, Kate. 2015. “Largest Steelworkers Strike in Decades Shows No Signs of Abating.” Waging Nonviolence, February 4. Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150323153154/http://wagingnonviolence.org/2015/02/largest-steelworkers-strike-decades-shows-signs-abating/).

Aronoff, Kate. 2015. “Striking Oil Workers Emerge Victorious Thanks in Part to Green Group Solidarity.” Waging Nonviolence, March 13. Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150323153018/http://wagingnonviolence.org/2015/03/striking-oil-workers-emerge-victorious-thanks-part-green-group-solidarity/).

Groom, Nichola. 2015. “Explosion at Exxon Mobil Refinery in Torrance, California, Injures Four.” Reuters, February 18. Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150323153953/http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/18/us-refinery-blast-exxon-iduskbn0lm1vr20150218).

Larino, Jennifer. 2015. “United Steelworkers Agree to 'tentative' Deal to End Refinery Strikes.” NOLA.com, March 12. Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150323153515/http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2015/03/agreement_end_oil_refinery_str.html).

Powell, Barbara and Lynn Doan. 2015. “Striking US Oil Workers Reach National Pact With Shell.” Bloomberg, March 12. Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150323153705/http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-12/shell-union-said-to-reach-tentative-deal-to-end-refinery-strike-i76ha14u).

Seba, Ewin. 2015. “Police Block Striking Refinery Workers From Entering Shell Houston HQ.” Reuters, March 6. Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150323154359/http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/06/us-refinieries-labor-strike-iduskbn0m22en20150306).

Sixel, LM. 2015. “Strike Talks Move Into Third Day.” Fuel Fix, 11 March. Retrieved March 21, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150314235335*/http://fuelfix.com/blog/2015/03/11/strike-talks-move-into-third-day/).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Stephen O'Hanlon, 23/03/2015