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The United Steelworkers union has kicked off oil industry bargaining at a national table to secure a pattern agreement that would affect thousands of workers at the BP Whiting Refinery.

The union's current three-year contract, which it secured after a three-month strike in 2015, expires on Feb. 1.

The USW represents more than 30,000 oil workers at more than 220 refineries, oil terminals, pipelines and petrochemical facilities across the United States, including most of the more than 1,800 full-time workers at the sprawling former Standard Oil refinery along the lakeshore in Whiting. Union-represented workers produce approximately 64 percent of the gasoline and other oil products consumed in the United States.

USW negotiators are bargaining with Shell Oil Co. as the lead company in the national talks. A union spokeswoman said local unions also have been negotiating specific local issues with their employers. 

"The USW is looking to achieve an agreement that is beneficial to our members and is cognizant to the needs of our employers," National Oil Bargaining Program Chairman Kim Nibarger said in a letter to USW members. "Our members want to be engaged with managing the risks we face at work, and no one is better equipped to do that than the people who are in the units every day and night. Our members’ objective is to make sure that our employers’ facilities are operated in a manner that makes them as profitable as possible and ensures we have a place to continue working."

Any new contract would affect wages, benefits and working conditions at the BP Whiting Refinery, one of the largest industrial employers along Lake Michigan's South Shore.

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Steelworkers are seeking a "no retrogression" clause that would renew past agreements on certain issues, such as no layoffs, job security, health and safety, rate retention and plant closure procedures. They are asking for successorship that would preserve union contracts if any refineries were sold or otherwise traded hands.

"Unfortunately, some companies have manipulated our current language around benefits to try to roll back retirement contributions and healthcare coverage," the USW said in a handout to members. "That’s why this round of bargaining, we’re aiming to strengthen our successorship language in order to secure these benefits. The expanded language would better protect our pension and benefit plans by requiring the successor company to either replicate the existing plans or negotiate changes with the union.

"Additionally, it would ensure members are protected when a single plant operation, such as a terminal, is sold apart from the entire refinery."

USW went on the longest strike in the history of the 130-year-old refinery in Whiting during the last round of contract negotiations in 2015, partly over staffing issues, fatigue management and a heavy use of contractors. This time, the union again has concerns about health and safety issues.

"Health and safety issues have always been a big priority in the National Oil Bargaining Program," the union said in the handout. "Over the years, we’ve had success forcing companies to recognize the union and union-selected representatives as partners in addressing health and safety issues. However, management at many facilities is still unwilling to cooperate and in many cases has found ways to manipulate fatigue standards to force excessive hours and strip members of overtime pay."

The union said its health and safety goals during this round of contract talks include adding more process safety and health and safety representatives, ensuring the USW gets input on job training and curriculum development at all sites, developing site-specific fatigue risk management systems, and greater protections for pipeline workers.

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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.