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Oil Refinery Workers Are on Strike and They're Getting Support from Environmentalists

The strike is now in its third week and environmental groups are supporting demands for improved safety conditions, which could help prevent hazardous leaks or explosions.

by Ari Paul
Feb 18 2015, 9:50pm

Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Reuters

A nationwide strike by more than 5,000 oil workers at nine facilities is now in its third week, potentially impacting up to 15 percent of the nation's refining capacity. While industrial unions haven't always had the best relationship with environmental groups, the strike is getting substantial support from greens.

Their support comes from the fact that the United Steelworkers of America (USW), which represents the workers, has made this strike about unsafe working conditions, not wages. The Steelworkers allege that the refineries are understaffed and that management is skirting industry safety standards.

Union spokesperson Lynne Hancock told VICE News that understaffing has led to refineries operating "with fewer people and they end up working excessive overtime to handle the workload of those who are not present."

She added, "When a person works excessive hours, he or she is likely to get fatigued, and when one is fatigued, one is likely to accidentally make mistakes."

'The USW has received a lot of support from the environmental community for this unfair labor practice work stoppage.'

The union alleges that there are an average of 43 refinery fires each year. And, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 112 fatal injuries in the oil and gas industry in 2011. Over the 5-year period from 2007 to 2011, the agency says, there were 529 fatal injuries. Texas recorded the highest number of fatalities, followed by Oklahoma and Louisiana.

USW says that as unionized oil workers retire, oil companies fill vacant positions with non-union contract workers, who don't have the same level of safety training as workers represented by trade unions.

With the USW so tightly focused on the issue of workplace safety and reducing the number of industrial accidents, the environmental community has been quick to voice support. These groups have long campaigned around water and air pollution that results from lax company policies and often slim government regulatory oversight.

"The USW has received a lot of support from the environmental community for this unfair labor practice work stoppage," Hancock told VICE News. "If we can get the oil companies to operate the refineries more safely, there will be fewer explosions, fires, and other events that negatively impact the environment and the community."

Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, echoed Hancock. "Greenpeace supports the efforts of the USW because their success will not only make people's jobs safer and more secure," she said in a statement, "it will make the communities of millions of Americans safer as well."

A pair of 'bomb train' derailments highlight continued risk of shipping oil by rail. Read more here.

Oil Change International sees the oil industry as the primary impediment to action on tackling climate change and a source of warfare, human rights abuse, and economic inequality also spoke in support of the striking workers.

"So often as we fight Big Oil it can be hard to remember that the impacts of the industry and the fight for safer communities extend both inside and outside the fence lines," David Turnbull, the organization's Campaign Manager said. "Everyone has the right to good, safe working conditions. They are not something that can go out the window just because the oil price drops."

Turnbull did take the opportunity to suggest workers aim for a broader conversation — one more closely aligned with that of its own goals — about the future of energy production, saying: "We look forward to the day when energy industry workers are able to focus on safer, just, and more stable jobs in a clean energy economy and aren't tied to the profiteering whims of big oil."

Follow Ari Paul on Twitter: @aripaul