Demanding Higher Wages, Refinery Workers Strike Shell Oil
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's been 35 years since the last major strike at this country's oil refineries and chemical plants. But that streak is over. Union workers are off the job at a handful of facilities that process 10 percent of the country's gas, diesel, heating oil and jet fuel. Times have changed. Plants are now so automated they can operate for a while without workers. But if this strike widens or drags on, it could affect the low gas prices drivers and companies have been enjoying. Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Lyondell, you can't hide. We can see your greedy side.
ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Nearly 4,000 refinery workers went on strike nationwide this week. More than a hundred of them gathered Tuesday just outside a skyscraper in downtown Houston. The strikers met at the LyondellBasell Tower, operational headquarters for the Dutch refining company. The workers, members of the United Steelworkers of America, were going to begin a demonstration just as the company's top executives were going to hold their quarterly conference call with stock analysts. But then the group decided to start its march early. Lee Medley is a pipefitter at the Shell Deer Park refinery near Houston and president of United Steelworkers Local 13-1.
LEE MEDLEY: Well, first and foremost, the industry walked away from the table. That led to the strike quicker than anything. It's hard for us to vote on something when they walk away from the table.
SCHNEIDER: Negotiations broke down between the union and Shell Oil over the weekend. In the Houston area alone, steelworkers have walked off the job at two Shell plants, two Marathon facilities and the LyondellBasell refinery. The union is pushing for higher wages. But Medley says a bigger concern is workplace safety. The union says the companies are requiring excessive overtime, which can reduce workers' sleep time and contracting out skilled jobs to unskilled workers less familiar with safety rules.
MEDLEY: I was born in Texas City. I've been in this area working in refineries for 35 years now. My kids were raised here. So it's us in the community. We live here. So if they're hurting safety, they are putting my family and my friends at risk.
SCHNEIDER: What's it likely to mean for consumers? Kenneth Medlock is senior director for the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University. He says the impact is minimal for now.
KENNETH MEDLOCK: Inventories for crude and products are just sky-high right now. Yeah, there's actually plenty of cushion for the market to be able to absorb any sort of short-term shutdown in production.
SCHNEIDER: But if the two sides can't reach an agreement, the strike could spread to other union sites. And if it lasts as long as eight to 10 weeks, inventories would start to run down. Another concern - refineries need to start retooling in March to shift production of gasoline to summer blends. Kevin Troutman is an attorney with the Houston office of Fisher & Phillips, covering employment law issues for energy companies. He says that companies are in a better position to withstand a prolonged strike than the workers.
KEVIN TROUTMAN: Things are more automated throughout the industry now than they were 30 years ago. They can bring in either management employees or experienced workers from elsewhere. You don't need as many workers to continue to operate as you would have 30 years ago because of technology.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We say fight back.
SCHNEIDER: Neither Shell, Marathon nor LyondellBasell would agree to comment for this story other than to say the negotiations are still ongoing. No end to the strike appears in sight. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.