A minute after the stroke of midnight, United Steelworkers union members walked off the job at nine oil refineries and chemical plants in a national strike across the United States.
It’s the union’s biggest strike since 1980, according to Bloomberg. The strike came after the failure of contract negotiations with the oil industry, represented by bargaining partner Royal Dutch Shell.
One of the refineries hit by the strike was the Tesoro refining facility in Anacortes, Washington. The local United Steelworkers chapter estimates that 95 to 96 percent of workers at the facility are union members, and most union workers—between 225 and 230—are participating in the strike.
Despite the fact that most outlets are covering the action as a failure to negotiate over health care and wages, USW Local 12-591 president Steve Garey says the main priority of the national strike is refinery safety and resolving the issue of chronic understaffing.
In 2010, seven refinery workers (six of whom belonged to the union) were killed at the Tesoro Anacortes facility, the second-deadliest refinery explosion of the last decade.
Tesoro suffered zero criminal penalties as a result, even after a report from the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concluded that “management had normalized the occurrences of hazardous conditions.”
“Our local union has lost 14 members in 16 years. Quite frankly, we’re tired of our coworkers being killed and being subjected to this risk,” Garey says.
Tesoro purchased the facility from Shell in 1998. Shell is also proposing an expansion of an oil-by-rail terminal to receive Bakken crude at its own Anacortes facility, which several environmental groups and community members opposed during a public commenting period last week.
“Tesoro has a long history of ignoring workers’ safety,” says Kerry McHugh of the Washington Environmental Council. “I think that obviously WEC stands with the workers and their requests for safe working conditions.”
Garey maintains that the strike isn’t about money.
“This is not about wages, honestly,” Garey says. “We are primarily considering the risk that our own members are exposed to within the plant, but that’s not where our concerns end. The risk is increased to members inside the plant, nearby communities, and the environment.”
It’s unclear when the national strike will end. The last major USW strike stretched three months.
To Garey, the negotiations come down to an issue of understaffing. “These plants are often running equipment at very high temperatures and high pressures, dangerous compounds, explosive compounds, cancer-causing compounds,” Garey says. “We want to do everything we possibly can to contain and control that process safely.”
Tesoro and Shell did not respond for comment by press time, but we’ll update if we hear back.
UPDATE: Shell passed along a statement that did not address safety concerns. “We remain committed to providing competitive pay and benefits to our employees in an environment where people want to grow, develop and provide for their families,” the statement reads. “While there are areas where Shell and the USW have common interests, it’s unfortunate that the union has chosen to use a strike as a means to resolve areas where we differ.”