Tentative deal could signal end to strike at BP refinery | WBEZ
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Tentative deal could signal end to strike at BP refinery

A tentative agreement has been reached that could end a nationwide strike for oil refinery workers, but union workers in Northwest Indiana say safety concerns must still be addressed before they sign off on a new contract.

Talks are expected to resume Friday between oil giant BP and its workers at the huge refinery in Whiting, Indiana. More than a thousand unionized workers at BP walked off the job when their contract expired at the end of January.

Eleven other refineries nationwide are also on strike in one of the largest work stoppages in the refinery business in decades. As the strike enters its second month, members of the United Steelworkers of America, Local 7-1 say they’re feeling squeezed.

“It’s definitely been tough. It’s been really hard on my whole family,” said Mitch, a 7-year BP worker who declined to provide his last name because he wasn’t authorized to speak for the union. “I mean you still have bills to pay and no money coming in. You got to make a bunch of cutbacks to get by.”

The union’s offices are right across the street from the refinery. The union heads didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, but WBEZ interviewed Mitch and others outside a union meeting earlier this week at Whiting High School.

Workers like Mitch can make close to &100,000 a year with overtime and benefits, but he says the strike is not about the money.

“I want to come home safe to my family every night. I want to make sure me, myself and my fellow union brothers and sisters get to come home safety to their families every night,” Mitch said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”

Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP Whiting says the company feels the same way.

“Safety is job one for everyone. It’s regardless if you’re managment, a contractor or a USW-represented worker,” Dean said. “Everybody that goes into that plant shares the same goal of going home to their families safe every day.”

During the walkout, there have been reports of so called “malfunctions” or "flare ups” at the refinery.

Just this week, a fluid catalytic unit — or cat cracker — shut down. The cat cracker turns boiling crude oil into gasoline.

“They had a catastrophic pump failure and because [the replacement workers] don’t know what they are doing in there, they didn’t pull the trigger quick enough to know what they hell they are doing and the whole cat cracker came down,” said another striking worker who declined to give his name.

The male employee says he’s worked at the refinery for 20 years.

“They got people getting gassed everyday. Everyday there are three or four people getting gassed with H2S (hydrogen sulfide), which will kill you in one breath,” the employee said. “They don’t know what they are doing in there.”

However, according to the Indiana Occupational Safety & Health Administration (IOHSA), there have been no reports of injuries at the refinery since the strike began.

An IOSHA spokesman also said the agency doesn’t plan to open an investigation into worker safety at the refinery.

BP’s Scott Dean says what the union calls “malfunctions” are the refinery’s safety measures working as they should.

“Anytime you have a piece of equipment break down, you have to address it. It’s normal operating at a day to day basis at a refinery,” Dean said. “The plant has been operating very safely for the past month during the walkout.”

At least one industry observer said he wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case despite losing half its workforce to the picket line. Tom Kloza is global head of energy analysis for the New Jersey-based Oil Price Information Service.

“Almost all the refineries in the U.S., really all of the refineries, can run for many, many months without some of the union people,” Kloza said. “They are very automated systems.”

Kloza said despite safety concerns, there should be enough incentive for both sides to make a deal.

“That refinery is probably one of the most profitable refineries in North America or in the world," Kloza said "There’s enough at stake and there’s enough money out there, the refinery is profitable, that I think this won’t drag on like it did in 1980 for many, many months. And, by the way, in 1980, when this did happen, there was no drop in refinery output because of a strike that lasted for almost a year.”

Now that a national tentative agreement has been reached, the strike’s days could be numbered. The agreement also appears to address some of the union’s safety concerns including staffing levels and work hours.

The deal between the USW and Shell Oil will be used as a pattern for the rest of the industry, according to a statement put out by the USW.

“We salute the solidarity exhibited by our membership,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. “There was no way we would have won vast improvements in safety and staffing without it.”

Safety issues were central to the negotiations, and the proposed agreement calls for the immediate review of staffing and workload assessments, with USW safety personnel involved at every facility, according to a USW press release.

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau Reporter.

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