The U.S. oil worker strike has entered its second month with just under 7,000 refinery workers now on the picket lines. They come from 15 plants across seven states and are represented by the United Steelworkers (USW) Union, which represents more than 30,000 American oil workers in total.
The strike, which was first called by the USW on January 31 and began on February 1, has evolved into the largest refinery strike in over 35 years. The last strike of this size took place in 1980, when the work stoppage lasted three months. Today, the 15 plants currently striking include 12 refineries that represent about one fifth of the nation’s refining capacity.
Safety Concerns a Key Issue
One of the central focuses of this strike has been the argument that oil companies are perceived by their employees to be prioritizing profits over worker safety. Some of the employees’ biggest concerns are worker fatigue leading to accidents and too many ill-trained and ill-paid contract workers.
Findings from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board support the validity of many of their concerns. In 2005, 15 workers were killed and more than 170 others injured in an explosion at a Texas refinery. In response, the CSB warned of a pervasive “complacency toward serious safety risks” present at all American refineries. Another explosion in 2010 killed seven workers at an oil refinery in Washington; the CSB determined that the incident was preventable, the result of “a deficient refinery safety culture” as well as weak industry standards. And a refinery explosion on February 18 of this year was the third U.S. refinery explosion in 2015 alone.
Worker fatigue has also been cited as a contributing cause of explosions in the past; following the 2005 explosion the American Petroleum Institute developed a set of fatigue management guidelines intended to limit hours and days of work. However, these guidelines aren’t enforced or overseen by OSHA, and there are reports of refinery employees working 12-hour shifts for 30 days straight.
The Refinery Industry’s Safety Record
Despite 26 reported fatalities in 2012 and 12 fatalities in 2013, the oil refinery industry is not on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of most dangerous jobs in the United States. However these statistics include only full-time employees and do not take into account contractor deaths, a practice which is questioned by some groups. Inexperienced contract workers are one of the major concerns being highlighted by the USW in this strike, though oil companies question the union’s motives, saying that USW seeks to replace non-union contractors with USW members.
According to the USW, since 2007 a fire or explosion at a U.S. facility has put refinery workers and the communities they work in at risk twice a month, on average.
Refinery Strike Negotiations Continue
Shell Oil Co. is handling the negotiations on the behalf of the affected U.S. refining companies, six in total. Shell and the union leaders had a teleconference meeting yesterday but no final agreement was made; both sides have agreed to meet in Houston on Monday, March 9. Labor leaders still say that the companies haven’t done enough to address their safety concerns.
Forbes contributor and energy consultant James Conca calls refineries “the little-appreciated bottleneck in oil’s path from the well to the pump,” pointing out that the United States’ limited oil refining capacity has caused gasoline prices to rise on several occasions in the past decade. As the strike continues it will be interesting to see how it may impact the U.S. oil price in combination with other factors, including worry surrounding oversupply and a strong U.S. dollar.