The biggest U.S. oil workers' strike in more than three decades just grew even larger, with two mid-western BP plants joining in the work stoppage to demand basic health and safety protections from some of the world's most powerful fossil fuel corporations.
The United Steelworkers announced Saturday that over 1,400 employees at two BP refineries—in Whiting, Indiana and Toledo, Ohio—have joined the 3,800 oil workers on strike at nine refineries in California, Kentucky, Texas and Washington.
The workers at the new sites officially began their work action at 12:01 Sunday morning, according to the union.
The strike, now entering its second week, is aimed at winning protections in an industry where safety is a matter of "life-or-death" for workers and surrounding communities, as Samantha Winslow points out in Labor Notes.
The Texas City, Texas plant on strike is the site of a BP refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers (the refinery was later sold to Marathon).
"We have a lot of forced overtime," Dave Martin, vice president of the union striking at the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, told Labor Notes. "That was one of the main issues in the Texas explosion: people working overtime and not making the right decisions."
"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," said Steve Garey, president of the USW local in Anacortes, Washington.
Shell Oil, which sits at the head of the negotiating table for the industry side, is refusing to budge on safety issues, say workers.
"After long days of discussions with the industry’s lead company, Shell Oil, little progress has been made on our members’ central issues concerning health and safety, fatigue, inadequate staffing levels that differ from what is shown on paper, contracting out of daily maintenance jobs, high out-of-pocket and health care costs," said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers in a press statement.
In an industry known for health and safety violations, as well as large-scale environmental disasters like BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the workers have garnered support from green groups.
"As we move towards a clean energy economy, there should be no throw-away communities and no throw-away workers," said environmental organization 350.org in a statement supporting the strikers.
Joe Uehlein from the Labor Network for Sustainability told Common Dreams, "All of this support from environmental groups being expressed is great and important and there should be more of it."
"Will it alter the long-term landscape of labor and environmental cooperation?" he asked. "I don't know. We need a common vision and strategy."
Brooke Anderson, organizer with Climate Workers and Movement Generation, told Common Dreams that she took part in a strike picket line at the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, California and found that, at a rank-and-file level, "a lot of those workers get the problem with refineries and pipelines. They know better than anyone how dangerous this stuff is and how dirty the industry is."
"The oil refinery workers there were so clear that they were on strike because they don't have the power to call out problems on the inside of the refinery," Anderson continued. "If they can't blow the whistle on health and safety issues, they know the consequences will come back on everyone."