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USW reaches tentative agreement with oil industry

Hundreds attend a rally for the striking BP Refinery workers in Whiting in 2015. The union reached a tentative pattern agreement with the oil industry. 

The United Steelworkers union struck a tentative pact Thursday evening with Shell Oil Co. in the national oil bargaining for a pattern agreement that would result in a new contract for workers at the BP Whiting Refinery.

The deal, which must be ratified by workers after local issues get hammered out at the bargaining table, would affect 30,000 oil workers nationwide at more than 220 refineries, terminals and other petrochemical operations across the country, including at the former Standard Oil Refinery on the Lake Michigan lakeshore in Whiting.

The pact was announced mere hours before the last collective bargaining agreement, negotiated in 2015, was set to expire Friday.

"We reached a tentative agreement because of our members' solidarity and the industry's willingness to negotiate a contract that is fair to both parties," USW International President Leo W. Gerard said.

The Pittsburgh-based union won't say what's actually in the contract. The USW plans to first distribute to its members the union's summary of what the agreement says. 

"We look forward to presenting the pattern settlement to our membership," USW International Vice President Tom Conway said. "The policy committee unanimously endorsed the final proposal."

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The national pattern will be sent to USW Local 7-1 and other locals around the country, which are negotiated local issues at each refinery and worksite. National Oil Bargaining Program Chair Kim Nibarger will review each bargaining unit's contract to make sure it includes the national pattern.

Then the contract will be turned over to union local members for a vote on whether to ratify it.

"We think this proposal reflects the desires of members in the oil section," Nibarger said.

Despite the 11th-hour deal and at least one previously rejected offer, national oil bargaining talks have gone far more smoothly than the contentious negotiations in 2015, in which oil workers in Whiting went on strike for a record 93 days over safety issues, such as heavy use of outside contractors. Local historians said the national work stoppage was the single longest strike in the history of the former Standard Oil refinery, which opened in 1889.

The USW earlier said it was pursuing many workplace safety goals during this round of contract talks, including adding more health and safety representatives, ensuring the union gets input on job training and curriculum development at all workplaces, coming up with site-specific fatigue risk management systems and ensuring greater protections for pipeline workers.

It also sought a "no retrogression" clause that would preserve the existing contract if any refineries or energy companies were to change ownership. 

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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.