BP Whiting Refinery

The BP Whiting Refinery.

WHITING | BP and United Steelworkers Local 7-1 have settled their differences nearly three months into a strike that galvanized the local labor movement and slashed the household incomes of around 1,100 Northwest Indiana families.

USW and BP both moved toward the middle and came to a tentative agreement to satisfy both sides, USW Local 7-1 President Dave Danko said. A few steps remain before oil workers can return to the job at the BP Whiting Refinery.

The USW International leadership must review the agreement to ensure it's in keeping with the national template the union reached with oil companies in March. USW Local 7-1, which represents about 57 percent of the workforce at the Midwest's largest refinery, must still negotiate a "return-to-work" deal to spell out the logistics of how and when workers come back.

Local union members could vote to ratify a deal as soon as next week, Danko said. The goal is to get them back to work as soon as possible.

"Both parties moved toward each other, which is how agreements usually get reached," he said. "We keep our bargaining rights and the company gets the flexibility it wanted to be competitive. We moved toward each other in negotiations. A strong company is balanced by a strong union, and we're satisfied and pleased to reach what we believe is a fair settlement."

Workers have been striking in Whiting since Feb. 8 as part of the first national oil strike since 1980. USW and Shell, which represented the oil companies, came to general terms last month, and oil workers across the country returned to work after union locals forged pacts with management.

The BP Whiting Refinery is one of just four in the country where oil workers are still on strike. But it could all be over soon.

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"The parties have reached a tentative agreement and are in the process of finalizing the settlement package," BP spokesman Scott Dean said. "We are pleased to have a tentative agreement in place at Whiting and will work towards getting our colleagues back to work as soon as possible. During this process, we sought an agreement that ensured safe, compliant, and reliable operations of the refinery, fairly compensates our employees for their work and improves the competitiveness of our business. This deal accomplishes those goals and we hope our USW-represented employees will ratify this contract as soon as possible."

BP Whiting Refinery workers had been striking mainly over safety issues, particularly staffing levels they said were too low and could lead to catastrophic accidents. Danko said the proposed contract addresses their concerns and he's hopeful the rank-and-file membership will approve it.

The biggest sticking point had been preserving the bargaining rights the union has had since 1937 at the former Standard Oil refinery on the Lake Michigan shoreline, USW spokeswoman Lynne Hancock said.

BP agreed to add language that the union had the right to bargain over safety and other working conditions, if USW agreed to eliminate a provision that said the union could strike during the term of a contract, which has never happened in the 125-year history of the Whiting refinery, Hancock said. 

The compromise was that both sides must accept arbitration if there are any disagreements when the contract is in effect, such as if BP proposed a new policy the union thought violated the agreement reached in bargaining.

While local workers could still take part in a national strike, the BP Whiting Refinery had been the only refinery in the country with an agreement that allowed for striking over local issues when a contract was in effect, Hancock said. That provision had been added in 1952, but no one knows why.

"The only person who would know is dead," she said. "But the company can't refuse arbitration, and the union maintains the right to bargain."


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.