WHITING | Striking BP refinery workers have been visiting a makeshift food pantry in the union hall to keep their cupboards stocked. They've worn sweaters instead of turning up the heat. They've had to explain to their kids why they can't go visit the zoo now that the weather's nice.
They've stood on the picket line when it was 10 below zero and the wind off Lake Michigan scalded their numb cheeks. They've pumped their fists as car after car honked their horns in support.
After nearly three months, the strike at BP Whiting Refinery is likely winding down. BP and United Steelworkers Local 7-1 have reached a tentative pact that would preserve the union's bargaining rights and allow it a say in safety while giving BP the reassurance that it won't have to worry about a strike while the contract is in effect.
"It's been long, and I'm going to be glad to get back to work," worker Bobby Elliott said. "You build a bond, and we just became family along the way. It's no longer a union to me. It's just family."
A few USW members are miffed BP reached a tentative agreement with the union Wednesday, but hasn't yet met with USW negotiators to hammer out a return-to-work agreement.
Oil refineries operate around the clock with multiple shifts, so not everyone just shows up at 9 a.m. the way they would in an office. That's one of the reasons the two parties need to negotiate a return-to-work deal, which also commonly would include protections for union workers so they don't get punished later for anything they said or did during the strike, such as standing outside the gate at the end of a shift and yelling "scab" to passing cars on the way home.
"There are still a multitude of issues to be worked out – training, qualifications, how many people are going to go back to work and when," striking worker Ralph Ford said. "Are they moving as quickly as they can? No, but neither have any of the negotiations."
BP spokesman Scott Dean there had been no change since the tentative agreement was announced last week.
"They're dragging their feet," Ford said. "It's a test to our solidarity. I think the fact we've been out here for three months as of this weekend and less than 1 percent of our workers crossed the picket line shows you the strength of our union."