Why oil refinery workers are striking for the first time in decades

Representatives from the United Steel Workers held a rally at the entrance to the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Ky., on Feb. 7. (AP Photo/The Independent, Kevin Goldy)

Representatives from the United Steel Workers held a rally at the entrance to the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Ky., on Feb. 7. (AP Photo/The Independent, Kevin Goldy)

Washington Post

By Lydia DePillis

The economy is improving, so the Steelworkers feel they can fight for something that’s concerned them for a while — safety.

PHILADELPHIA – Jim Savage, the leader of United Steelworkers Local 10-1 at an oil refinery on the south side of Philadelphia, hasn’t walked out yet. But he’s ready: Nine plants across the country have been on strike since Feb. 1 in the first nationwide oil worker strike since 1980. And if contract negotiations between the union and oil industry negotiators don’t wrap up soon, he might be called up, as well.

“People are nervous,” said Savage, standing in a gaggle of refinery workers waving flags at a rally last weekend. “We picked a fight with the wealthiest, most powerful people in the history of the world. So we’re either very courageous, or the stupidest people walking.”

Most of them don’t remember the oil workers’ last general strike. Since then, the Steelworkers (and predecessor unions) have managed to come to agreements with the 20 or so oil companies that negotiate as a group, ironing out a contract that now covers 30,000 workers — down from 50,000 in 1984 — and two-thirds of the nation’s refining capacity.

But this year, talks broke down. So, what’s the holdup?

At a time when membership has sunk, unions that control critical infrastructure — like oil refineries — are digging in. And the fact that the economy is finally recovering gives them more solid ground to stand on, since unions figure that companies have the margins to share a little extra.

Unlike many labor disputes, though — and in contrast with the AFL-CIO’s new focus on raising wages — this one isn’t about pay. While incomes for many Americans have stagnated or even declined, refinery workers’ earnings have kept pace with inflation over the past decade, staying around $62,000 per year in current dollars, plus substantial health care and retirement benefits. Most of the workers at the Philadelphia plant had little college education, if any, and the most experienced can make $35 an hour.

“We do pretty well,” says Savage. “This is about the best-paying job a guy like me is going to get.”

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