Union is striking for safety, Steelworkers’ international head says

Improving health and safety at the nation’s refineries is the reason the United Steelworkers union is on strike, said Leo W. Gerard, international president of the union that has walked out of 15 refineries and chemical plants since launching its strike Feb. 1.

“We’re not just fighting for our members,” he told reporters during a conference call Tuesday morning. Rather, he said, the union is fighting for safer communities.

Too many times, Gerard said, refineries have chemical releases and other incidents that send local residents to the hospital or force them to remain in their homes until danger passes.

Gerard rejected the industry’s arguments that the union is trying to take control over corporate business decisions, including staffing, at the refineries and chemical plants.

“We have the right and the obligation” to make sure employees are working in a safe environment and that they’re not forced to work excessive overtime to the point of exhaustion, he said.

Companies are creating unsafe workplaces when they force employees to work 12-hour shifts 25 to 28 days in a row, he said. An investigation after one explosion revealed that some workers had been on the job as many as 30 days without a day off.

“We’re not being unreasonable about this,” he said.

He said more plants may be taken out on strike if a settlement isn’t reached.

The Steelworkers represent 30,000 workers in oil refineries, chemical plants, pipelines and oil terminals nationwide, including 5,000 in the Houston area.

Across the U.S., the union represents more than 230 refineries, oil terminals, pipelines and petrochemical facilities in the United States. Of those, 65 are refineries that process nearly two-thirds of the crude oil in the nation.

While the union called strikes, including at five plants in the Houston area, members continue to work as usual at the other plants that are operating under rolling 24-hour contract extensions, which extend contracts a day at a time until negotiators reach an agreement or one side calls them off.

In addition to the national talks, local unions are negotiating issues at individual sites.