By Blaine Hopkins
For nearly 90 days, ExxonMobil has locked out over 650 union workers fighting for a better contract at their Beaumont, Texas refinery. The workers’ lockout has the refinery operating at only 60% capacity as workers hold out against the company’s attempts to remove seniority bidding, lead safety operator positions, and pay raises.
Since January, Exxon has refused to budge on its original offer to workers organized through United Steel Workers (USW) Local 13-243. The union rejected the offer, and in late April agreed to transfer operations to temporary workers for a May 1 lockout, denying employment to all USW members.
Since then negotiations have stalled, with locked-out workers saying the company is not negotiating in good faith. Exxon has refused to compromise on key disputes in the new contract, and workers told Tribune that Exxon wants the new contract approved in order to further divide the workers.
Exxon’s new proposed contract would offer different pay rates to workers based on whether they work in the refinery or in the blending and packaging (B&P) plant. B&P workers would be particularly impacted as they would not receive a raise until 2024. The company’s offer also aims to remove seniority bidding, a process in the job application process in which preference is senior union members with greater qualifications, across the two plants. By removing seniority bidding, the company makes it easier to contract out better-paying positions to non-union labor.
During the 2015 contract negotiations, Exxon divided the Beaumont USW members from other oil and gas industry unions by pushing for a six-year contract term. This has put the workers on a different schedule from other oil industry contract negotiations, effectively removing Beaumont members from the industry-wide collective bargaining process. According to one worker, this allowed Exxon to propose its new unfair contract.
Workers with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have continued to work on the other side of the picket due to their union administrators taking a separate deal back in 2015.
One worker told Tribune that the deal offered to the IBEW was only a couple months earlier than that offered to the USW. The increased benefits, including hefty sign-on bonuses, were used so the IBEW and USW would negotiate contracts separately from each other. “The goal was to separate us. I don’t know what they [the union] were thinking,” the worker said.
Workers also said the proposed contract would lead to unsafe conditions due to the removal of lead safety operator positions, which would now be merged with a lower class operator position and result in less-qualified people overseeing safety.
Exxon is seeking a two-year probationary period for new hires. The company originally wanted a four-year period. One worker told Tribune the intent is clear: “They can fire you for any reason. … They don’t want people with opinions.”
Workers state that the use of temps shows that the company does not care about worker safety, as they put people in roles for which they lack necessary training and experience. Locked-out workers know the use of temps strengthens Exxon to continue pressing for its original proposal, but tell Tribune they want to continue negotiations rather than cave to the company’s demands. For them, this means getting a deal worth voting on.
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