TEXAS CITY — More than 1,100 Galveston County oil refinery workers are walking off the job after talks between oil refiners and the United Steelworkers failed to resolve differences in a new labor deal.
A 12:01 a.m. Sunday deadline came and went as negotiators with the USW sent a message to members that the latest offer from oil companies was "insulting and fails to address issues that matter to members."
According to the Associated Press and other media reports, Royal Dutch Shell, the lead oil company in the national oil talks, would not comment on the details of labor negotiations.
The failed contract talks affect 63 refineries across the nation, including Marathon Petroleum's Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, the nation's fifth largest refinery.
It also includes Marathon's co-generation plant, which is located next to the massive refinery. Workers there also went on strike.
The contract also covers BP's Texas City Chemical plant, but a strike order was not issued for that facility.
The USW issued strike orders at nine facilities nationwide.
Strike orders were also issued at LyondellBasell in Houston; Marathon Refinery, Catlettsburg, Ky; Shell Deer Park Refinery, Deer Park; Shell Deer Park Chemical Plant, Deer Park; Tesoro Anacortes Refinery, Anacortes, Wash.; Tesoro Martinez Refinery, Martinez, Calif. and Tesoro Carson Refinery, Carson, Calif.
The remaining USW-represented refineries and oil facilities are operating under a rolling 24-hour contract extension.
It was unconfirmed how many workers nationally would go on strike Sunday. But the contract covers about 30,000 workers nationwide at refineries that produce about two-thirds of the country's refining capacity.
"The strike is on," read a text from USW Local 13-1 President Lee Medley in response to an inquiry from The Daily News a few minutes after the deadline passed.
Workers at Marathon's Texas City GBR refinery were in the process of "transitioning" from working their shifts to walking off the job Medley said.
"They should be done with that by early (Sunday) morning," Medley said at 12:45 a.m.
Normally, a walkout would be preceded by union workers working with company officials to shut down operating units. That did not appear to the case in Texas City where Medley said Marathon officials planned to keep units running under the control of salaried employees.
Marathon's salaried workers, who are not covered under the union contract, had been shadowing hourly workers for weeks in anticipation of a strike, union officials confirmed.
Some union members gathered at the union hall at about 11 p.m. Saturday in preparation to start picketing Sunday morning. Some of Texas City's USW members walked a small picket line just after 12:01 a.m. Sunday, but left to regroup for a coordinated picket Sunday morning.
By sunrise several USW members were picketing across the street from the Galveston Bay Refinery and Cogeneration facility.
As contract talks continued earlier in the day Saturday, more than 100 supporters and members of the USW lined the side of the road at the intersection of South Shore Harbour Boulevard and Marina Bay Drive in League City.
Wearing USW shirts and bright green reflective safety vests, protesters held signs asking for fair contracts, and said “Shame on You” to Marathon “for masking their lack of concerns for families.”
Charleztta Lahner stood alongside the road with her two young children in support of her father-in-law, Greg Lahner, who has worked for the company for almost 30 years, she said.
“If this leads to a strike and a work stoppage, we wouldn’t be prepared,” Lahner said. “It would be really tough, but it’s something we have to do.”
Elizabeth Brooks, who has worked for the company for eight years, echoed Lahner’s sentiments that it would be very difficult to strike, but she was willing to do whatever it takes.
“This won’t just impact me and my family, but the entire community,” Brooks said.
There were also pro-union workers lining the parade route of the Mardi Gras Mainland parade in Texas City on Saturday.
Medley said union officials have done everything they can to prepare people for the effects of a work stoppage. Earlier in the week national USW officials said a strike probably was necessary to win concessions from the oil refiners.
A message sent to Texas City union members Friday reminded them to clean out their work lockers before the contract expires. Picket signs and other strike-related items were ready at the USW union hall on Texas Avenue in Texas City.
Marathon officials have steadfastly declined to comment on local negotiations. They insisted, though, that even with a walkout the safe operation of the refinery was "the top priority."
The work stoppage at Marathon’s Galveston Bay Refinery is the first at that refinery in 35 years, when it was previously an Amoco facility. The 123-day strike that ended on May 11, 1980, saw 1,300 workers walk the picket line.
Union members said one of the reasons for Saturday morning’s rally was to show support of both the local and international bargaining that was taking place in League City and in Florida, said Sonny Sanders, subdistrict director of United Steelworkers Union.
The national oil talks happen every three years and are divided into two parts. The national negotiations are led by the United Steelworkers and the oil refiners are represented this go-round by Royal Dutch Shell. The local portion of the contract is handled on a refinery-by-refinery basis. In the case of Texas City, Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery has been at odds with local union officials for months.
Marathon’s other Texas City refinery is on a different negotiation schedule than the Galveston Bay Refinery and is unaffected by the strike. Valero Energy Corp.’s Texas City refinery is not part of the national talks since it is nonunion.
As of Saturday night, five proposals had been made by Shell, but all of them had been rejected for being “woefully inadequate,” Sanders said.
“Shell refused to provide us with a counter-offer and left the bargaining table,” USW International President Leo W. Gerard said. “We had no choice but to give notice of a work stoppage.”
"We remain committed to resolving our differences with the USW at the negotiating table," said Shell spokesman Ray Fisher in a statement earlier in the day Saturday.
Texas City Marathon workers staged two public protests in recent weeks before Saturday morning’s protest. The latest came Wednesday night.
Even if national oil talks had reached an agreement, local level talks at Marathon have been contentious.
USW Local 13-1 members said they protested the “death” of a long-standing labor partnership agreement between the workers and management at the city’s largest refinery, which employs more than 2,500 people, many of whom are union members. Marathon Petroleum canceled the agreement in December.
About 1,100 USW members are employed at Marathon’s Galveston Bay Refinery.
Union members said cancellation of the agreement threatens safety procedures.
The agreement provided a way for the two sides to work out issues related to work performed at the refinery that will now become part of the collective bargaining negotiations, Sanders said.
“When you look at our industry, people see money, but we see safety,” Medley said. “Our people live in these communities.”
The contract talks come at a time when falling oil prices have been leading to massive layoffs and oil exploration project cancelations.