Oil-Refinery Workers in Texas Picketed for Their Lives

On February 1, 2015, one minute after midnight, 3,800 workers walked off the job at nine oil refineries around the country, claiming that they were working under unsafe conditions.

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Apr 8 2015, 12:00am


Shell Deer Park, near Houston, where union workers joined a nationwide refinery strike on February 1

  • Matthew C. Bowen, 31, killed in an explosion and fire.
  • Darrin J. Hoines, 43, killed in an explosion and fire.
  • Kathryn "K. D." Powell, 29, died of injuries resulting from the explosion and fire.
  • Lew Janz, 41, died of injuries resulting from the explosion and fire.
  • Matt Gumbel, 34, died of injuries resulting from the explosion and fire.

This list is tacked on a board near the entrance of the United Steelworkers Local 13-1 union hall in Pasadena, Texas. The small print goes on and on for pages, filled with the names of USW members across the country who have died at work. The bulletin hangs near sports trophies and a Coke machine, a simple reminder that in this line of work death is part of the job.

Just three weeks before my arrival in Pasadena, the union—which represents more than a million workers at industrial sites, including oil refineries and chemical plants—had decided that enough was enough. On February 1, 2015, one minute after midnight, 3,800 USW workers walked off the job at nine oil refineries around the country. The industry hadn't seen a strike like this in 35 years.

Their contracts had expired, and the union and oil companies couldn't resolve an argument that some said was about the dangerous conditions endemic at oil refineries. Union officials claimed that their members were overworked, that an "unhealthy and unsafe reliance on outside contractors to handle day-to-day maintenance" was jeopardizing refineries, and that better training was necessary to avoid accidents. Shell, the industry's lead negotiator, said that USW's demands were unreasonable, that they were being asked to give up "flexibility in hiring to accommodate economic cycles and maintenance schedules."


A striker at Shell Deer Park keeping watch for scabs

Either way, if the strike grew to a full nationwide walkout, as union officials suggested it could, it had the potential to affect 64 percent of all oil produced in the United States. There was no precedent for what that could do to the economy.

In the meantime, the workers in Pasadena and around the country were going without a paycheck.

I left the local union hall and drove five miles to the picket line at Shell Deer Park, an oil refinery and petrochemical plant. At each entrance, pairs of union members walked back and forth across the road, holding signs that read this is an unfair labor practice: strike. Tucked into the grass were handmade, less polite messages: nothing lower than a scab except a usw-union scab and today is national recruit scab day at shell deer park.

The refinery at Shell Deer Park is the size of a small city. First built in 1929, it's since expanded to a sprawling complex of 1,500 acres (three times the size of the East Village in Manhattan), complete with offices, a firehouse, a medical center, a rail system, and shipping docks. Every day, 340,000 barrels of crude flow into this facility to be treated, broken down, and otherwise refined into gasoline, heating oils, and chemicals to be sold around the world. Clouds of thick steam and towering mechanisms can be seen from miles away.


A union member at the picket line

In comparison, the handful of union members holding picket signs at the entrance looked more than a little outmatched, like Dorothy and the Tin Man standing at the gates of Oz. They couldn't do much except walk quietly back and forth with their signs while keeping an eye out for scabs—co-workers who have crossed the line and gone back to work. On occasion, a car honked in support. The strikers had been warned to be careful when speaking with the press so that the union could control the message.

After a while, though, one of the workers approached me saying he might be able to talk if I agreed not to use his name. "Can you call me Santana?" he asked me later. I said yes.

That weekend, Santana and his wife—let's call her Debbie—met me for enchiladas and margaritas at a local bar to tell me his story, a life devoted to working at Shell Deer Park. Starting in the ninth grade, he took vocational courses that would help prepare him for a job at the refinery. By the time he graduated high school, he had four years of training. Shell hired him in 1984 and, by his account, paid him a great wage. He and Debbie married young, had two daughters, bought a house, and lived well. Which isn't to say that it was easy: Santana often worked 16-hour double shifts for multiple days in a row.

"Your union brothers and sisters, the ones you work with, they become your primary family. The one at home kind of becomes secondary," Santana told me. "But you try to do your best."

As time went on he picked up little habits, like calling and checking in with Debbie after working overnight shifts. One morning in 1997 they were chatting on the phone when Debbie suddenly heard him say, "What the fuck?" Then the line cut out.


Lee Medley is a fourth-generation union member and president of USW Local 13-1

"I'm holding the phone to my ear, and the windows are shaking," Debbie told me. "We live five miles away. I just remember putting the phone down and saying, 'He's dead.'"

According to a report later filed by the EPA, the explosion at Shell Deer Park was felt as far as ten miles away. The local highway was shut down. People living in the Deer Park neighborhood were ordered to stay in their homes. A fire raged for ten hours while Debbie waited, assuming her husband had perished.

Later that afternoon, when Santana emerged unharmed, something had changed for the both of them. The explosion had been relatively minor—only a few people had been injured, and Santana was far away from it—but the possibility of an accident, the realization of how quickly his life could be taken, had become all too real. Safety, he said, is the ability to trust one's co-workers.

Santana asked me, "If I can't trust the brother to my left or the sister to my right, how the hell do I go to work in the morning?"

The president of USW Local 13-1, Lee Medley, is a big man, a fourth-generation union member, the descendent of coal miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania who followed work after the Great Depression down to refineries and plants in South Texas. He is built low and stocky and carries a gut like a bowling ball in front of him. He wears union blue the way a college-football fan wears his team colors. If you ask him whether he knows anyone who's been hurt working at oil refineries, he'll rattle off a list that will make your head spin.

"My family was at Texas City in 1947 when it exploded. I've had a cousin burned up. He lived through it. My dad's been crushed. He spent eighteen months recovering in bed. And my uncle's had a chain fall drop on him and crush his face. You know, we've been through the pain."

The message that Medley wanted to telegraph more than anything else, the thing he said in every conversation, usually multiple times, was, "This is not a financial strike."

Union workers are, quite simply, very expensive. At Shell Deer Park, USW members make an average of $37 an hour and have benefits including sick days and health insurance. Their jobs are protected by numerous rules detailing exactly when and how union workers can be hired or fired. They earn pensions after they retire.

Retirement, in fact, may be part of the problem. As experienced workers leave the workplace, replacing their knowledge and training can be difficult. On top of that, the economic climate hasn't been kind to the unions. In the United States, union membership is the lowest it has been in 70 years.

As those experienced workers leave refineries, it isn't hard to imagine why Shell and other companies have shifted toward hiring independent contractors—who don't have union protections—to handle more and more daily maintenance and other jobs at refineries. Even doling out large sums of overtime pay to existing union workers can be more affordable than the long-term costs of hiring another union worker.

Unfortunately, the vocational and training programs that prepared workers like Santana aren't offered in high schools or by companies like they once were. Medley said that oil companies aren't addressing the growing gap of experience between retiring workers and new contractors. "The problem is they look at training as a cost, not as an investment," he told me.


USW offered hardship payments to union members

Shell seemed to think these concerns were exaggerated. When asked for comment, Shell explained that "contracting companies working at our facilities have safety standards that meet or exceed Shell's safety standards" and that ample training programs are offered by the company.

That did little to impress the workers I talked to.

The night I met Santana, he invited me to go to Bombshells, a Hooters-style restaurant where well-proportioned women in skimpy outfits serve large glasses of cold beer. After working four 12-hour shifts in a row, the guys like to come here and wind down. They call it "Thirsty Thursdays." They weren't going to let a strike get in the way of their beer-drinking schedule.

At the table, Santana introduced me to a couple of his union brothers. None wanted to give their names, but they were fine with letting me listen in. Let's call them Tony, Andy, and Bill. Mostly, they wanted to talk about scabs.

"I heard one guy never even paid his union dues because it was against his religion," Tony said.

"The fuck does religion have to do with your union dues?" Andy asked.

"Exactly," Tony said, shaking his hand in the air like he was jerking a cock. "And another guy, I heard he just bought a 'Vette. Like, you gotta cross the line so you don't miss the payment on your 'Vette? You think that bill's more important than my bills?"

But I wanted to know whether they thought the plant was safe. I mentioned that Shell maintains that it is, and that some say it is more dangerous to work in a meat-processing plant than an oil refinery.

Tony nodded his head. "Yeah, if something goes wrong at the meat processor I might cut my thumb. If something goes wrong in Deer Park, we blow up the neighborhood."

Bill nodded in agreement. "Bottom line is, we get paid what we do because we're babysitting a bomb."

Nobody likes to talk about dying at work, but these guys seemed to be used to the idea, like it was something that could just happen. Everyone ordered another round of beer.


Homemade signs showed the tension between Shell and the workers

On the same night I spent at the bar with Santana and his co-workers, Medley met with Shell's negotiators at Deer Park's La Quinta Inn. These meetings are typically formal: The company submits a new contract offer or the union responds to the most recent offer. Medley, like other local union presidents, is expected to sit across the table and speak on behalf of the union.

But during negotiations, Medley said, he'd reached a breaking point with the formality. "Twenty days of no sleep, worrying about my people, and then I get a piece of paper that doesn't change anything and doesn't help anybody? I told them, 'We reject this piece of crap fully and completely, and y'all can go fly a kite.'"

The next day, February 20, the strike spread to the refinery in Port Arthur, the largest in the nation. Two more refineries in Louisiana promised to join soon after.


More than 150 union workers gave up and returned to work before the strike was resolved.

At its peak, the strike spread to 7,000 workers at 15 refineries. Some predicted it might last all spring, but on March 12 the union announced it had tentatively agreed on a new contract with Shell. As expected, the contract included the typical small annual raises for USW workers, the same medical benefits, and a "no retrogression" clause that preserved the terms of earlier agreements. But it only addressed the concerns about staffing and safety with a promise to review those issues in the future.

"There's no concrete changes," Santana told me. "It's just something they say they're going to look at. What does that mean?"

Even Medley, when I called him, admitted, "It's not everything we wanted."

The resolution might have come about because the strike was fraying at the edges. The union offers hardship payments, the kind of thing that helps members take care of their mortgage or medical bills, but for some that hadn't been enough. According to Shell, more than 150 USW workers at Shell Deer Park alone had given up and gone back to work.

On March 19, the USW Local 13-1 called on its members to vote on the new contract. It passed, with an overwhelming majority in favor. "I don't feel any safer, but people want to get back to work," said Santana, who had voted against it.

A few days before the agreement, I had called Santana and asked him whether he thought it was all worth the fuss—missing a paycheck for months while the union and the companies fought over a couple of lines on a contract.

He responded by asking whether I knew what it was like to build a plane.

I said no.

He asked me to imagine putting together each part of a plane myself—the engine, the rudders, the spark plugs. "If you did it yourself, you know you can trust it. At the moment when you take it off the runway and into the air, you know what you're flying with," he said.

Then he asked me to imagine only building half of the plane myself, being told that the rest of the plane was made by someone else, someone you weren't sure was as trained or qualified as you. "What are you going to be thinking about on that runway? Do you really want to take it up in the air?"

Santana got quiet. I thought maybe the line was dead. A few seconds later he said, "That's what we're fighting for. We just don't want to find out we have a problem at twenty thousand feet."

With the new contract, he said, that fear hadn't gone away.

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