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USW pledges to support businesses that supported them during strike

Striking workers picket outside the BP Whiting Refinery. The strike that began Feb. 8 is nearly resolved.

WHITING | The support extends beyond the pro-union signs that line the storefronts on 119th Street in downtown Whiting.

Local businesses have donated barbecued meat, paczki and other food to striking oil workers, and hosted fundraisers to support their families.

They have offered United Steelworkers Local 7-1 workers discounts on everything from haircuts to chiropractic services as the strike at the BP Whiting Refinery has dragged on.

Such merchants won't be forgotten, the union vowed.

"We're thankful to all the trade unions, residents and businesses that have supported us," USW 7-1 President Dave Danko said. "We're indebted to businesses, and will make sure they're not forgotten going forward."

The strike over safety and staffing issues that began on Feb. 8 soon may be resolved, as BP and the union have agreed to both a new contract and a return-to-work agreement. BP said the 57 percent off its local workforce that's been out picketing would return the week of May 18 after the union membership voted Monday to ratify the agreement.

The strike has had a ripple effect on Northwest Indiana's economy, since 1,100 of some of the best paid industrial workers haven't taken home a paycheck in three months. The union warned workers – who make an average $82,000 a year with overtime – to scrimp from the beginning since it wasn't known how long the strike would go on, and they haven't spent money at the restaurants, bars and bowling alleys they used to patronize.

Union members have cut back, keeping lights off in their homes, conserving water and forgoing trips to the zoo they  otherwise would have taken the kids to.

"Families have faced real financial stress," striking worker Teri Smith said. "They're not just messing with the people working here. They're messing with our families."

The union has helped, such as by running a food pantry in its union hall on Schrage Avenue. 

"We're generally the ones giving help,"Smith said. "We're the big tippers in the community. But now we have our hands out."

The entire region has been affected economically, striking worker Sharon Warnecke said.

"Restaurant owners have said our business has been affected by this because you're not coming in," she said. "So many people from the refinery used to patronize the restaurant, but now we don't have the money to."

USW Local 7-1 is putting together a list of restaurants and merchants that supported workers during the strike. The list will be shared with other union locals.

"The restaurants that have supported us, we're going to patronize them with the sole intention of repaying them for supporting us," Warnecke said.

"We will support them. We will patronize them."

Local businesses have greatly helped striking workers such as by coming out to the picket line, donating food, keeping the pantry stocked and contributing money to the strike fund, worker Ralph Ford said.

"They've done a lot for us," he said.

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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.