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WHITING | United Steelworkers Local 7-1 members voted overwhelmingly to approve a new contract they say will make the BP Whiting Refinery a safer place to work and preserve bargaining rights the union has had for nearly 80 years.

An estimated 92 percent of refinery workers and 100 percent of plant guards voted to ratify a new four-year agreement at the Midwest's largest refinery on Lake Michigan's southern shore.

"The vote was overwhelming," USW Local 7 Director Mike Millsap said. "It's got the safety stuff the workers wanted. I think it shows that when pushed, workers are willing to stand up."

After striking for more than three months, the refinery workers are expected to return to work the week of May 18.

"I am pleased our USW membership has ratified the new collective bargaining agreement," BP Whiting Refinery Manager Jorge Lanza said. "Our USW-represented employees will begin to return to work the week of May 18. Our reintegration process is expected to take about three weeks, through an orderly, smooth process that focuses on safety and promotes teamwork. We will work with each returning employee to safely reintegrate them into the shift schedules so as to avoid disruptions and ensure compliant operations."

About 1,100 workers, or about 57 percent of the refinery's workforce, have been out on the picket lines over concerns the refinery was unsafe and understaffed. 

Non-union supervisors and replacement workers who included retirees ran the 428,000 barrel-per-day refinery during the entire length of the strike, which ended up lasting slightly longer than the last national refinery strike in 1980. Despite frequent flare-ups and malfunctioned units, they kept the refinery going so it could continue to serve more than 3 million consumers across seven Midwestern states.

"I want to reiterate my thanks to those employees who continue to operate the refinery safely and reliably as we work through the reintegration process," Lanza said. "This has been a very challenging period of time for everyone. We look forward to having all our Whiting employees back to work soon and building on the success we had achieved prior to the strike."

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BP and USW Local 7-1 started negotiating a new contract in December, but local workers ended up joining the first national refinery strike in 35 years on Feb. 8. USW members went on strike at a dozen refineries across the country.

The union and the oil companies forged an agreement on March 12 that BP agreed to, under which workers would keep their current health care plan cost-sharing ratio and get annual raises of up to 2.5 percent.

Union workers were mainly concerned about understaffing they said led to excessive overtime, few days off and fatigue that could be dangerous when working with explosive gases. The national pattern agreement called for assessments of staffing, workloads and daily maintenance that the union would be involved in. While it's not immediately clear whether the reviews will result in more staff and fewer overtime hours, union members said they got a say in workplace safety they didn't have before.

"The oil industry has a terrible record on safety," Millsap said. "This shows the union and its members are going to do everything to ensure these workplaces are safe. The processes are designed to help with the fatigue issues and what's happening with the plants' safety needs."

After the national pattern agreement was cemented, workers started trickling back to work at refineries across the country. The former Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting, which originally made kerosene for lamps when it first opened before automobiles were even around in 1889, was one of the last in the country where a strike lingered on over local issues.

USW 7-1 was concerned that BP was going to strip away bargaining rights the union has had since 1937. BP agreed to explicitly state in the contract the union could negotiate on wages and other working conditions, while the union conceded it would not strike over any disagreements while a contract is in effect.

Workers remain on strike at a BP refinery in Toledo and at a Marathon Refinery in Texas, where a massive explosion killed 15 workers in 2005.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.