Why are Oil Refinery Workers Being Forced to Pay for a Deadly Explosion?


This piece was originally published at Labor Notes

A little after midnight on Good Friday last year, a heat exchanger on a naphtha hydrotreater unit at the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington, catastrophically failed.

The unit exploded, setting off a blast that shook homes five miles away and igniting a fire that could be seen everywhere in town. Three oil workers died in the blast; four others died at the hospital from injuries sustained in the incident.

The Washington State Department of Labor said the explosion was preventable. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reported that Tesoro failed to adequately maintain the nearly 40-year-old heat exchanger and that microscopic cracks had built up, making a rupture possible.

Because of the explosion, the refinery went idle for months. The company reported losing at least $40 million in downtime, equipment damage, and fines.

But rather than eating the losses and taking steps to prevent further tragedies, Tesoro management thought of a novel way to recoup the losses—it would force workers to pay for its mistakes.

Six months after the deadly blast, Tesoro managers announced that they would be implementing steep cuts to workers’ pensions and retiree health care. The company has pushed through a shift from defined-benefit pensions to a less secure defined-contribution plan, and is trying to force the union to write the change into the contract—a demand the Steelworkers are refusing.

Prepping for a Strike

Union members are holding strong against the cutbacks, voting overwhelmingly for strike authorizations at four refineries. A strike at the company’s four refineries would impact about 78 percent of the company’s refining capacity, potentially affecting 439,000 barrels daily. Most of the gasoline produced by the company is sold through Tesoro, Shell, and USA Gasoline branded retail stations across the West Coast.

The first strike votes came after contracts expired February 1 in North Dakota, California, and Washington state. They were joined by fellow members of the Steelworkers at a Los Angeles refinery, who voted in favor of strike authorization in advance of their May 1 contract expiration.

Workers are poised to strike at all four locations any time after May 1.

At the bargaining tables in these four locations, the company is trying to force workers to agree to make pension and retiree health care cuts permanent. Tesoro wants to implement even deeper cuts to workers’ vacation, and extract an agreement that would give the company the unfettered right to change benefits at any time, without bargaining.

USW members at Tesoro are furious that they’re being asked to pay for management’s mistakes. Mark Laurance, unit chair for USW Local 591, said, “Here in Anacortes, we’ve already paid enough for their mistakes. Some of us have paid with our lives, the rest of us have lost friends and family members. We’re not going to pay any more.”

Coordinated Campaign

In addition to strong shows of opposition to the company’s concessionary demands, USW members are mounting an extensive campaign to pressure Tesoro at the bargaining table and build public support for their fight.

All four locals have organized demonstrations at dozens of Tesoro-owned gas stations across the West Coast. On April 14, Tesoro workers were joined by dozens of other USW members and community supporters for a day of action that saw demonstrations at 15 locations.

USW members are also taking action on the refinery floor. Throughout April, top Tesoro bosses traveled from refinery to refinery on a road show to hold town-hall meetings presenting the company’s business plans.

In location after location, Tesoro’s top brass were confronted by angry union members, peppered with difficult questions, and angrily booed by workers. In one location workers staged a walkout during the talk.

In early May, USW members at Tesoro plan to take their message to shareholders at the company’s shareholder meeting in San Antonio.

Workers from all four locations will deliver more than 8,000 letters from union activists around the country demanding that the company bargain a fair contract. After the meeting Tesoro workers will be joined by busloads of union activists from around the region for a demonstration outside the company’s headquarters. From there, several activists will head straight to the May 4-6 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago.

It’s still too early to tell whether or not Tesoro’s outrageous demands will force workers to strike, but one thing is clear: USW members at Tesoro aren’t willing to pay for management’s mistakes.

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