ExxonMobil threatens to lock out union workers

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BAYTOWN, Texas - ExxonMobil's flat refusal to deal with safety issues at the largest refinery in the U.S. in Baytown, Texas has led the oil firm to threaten to lock out its 850 employees, members of the Steel Workers local there. USW, which is trying to negotiate a new contract, had to give ExxonMobil a 60-day notice of a possible strike.

The two sides were scheduled to hold another bargaining session on May 3. USW's lead negotiator, District Director Richard "Hoot" Landry, still hopes they can reach agreement. But right now, ExxonMobil refuses to admit there's anything wrong at Baytown and says it doesn't need to impose safety measures that USW, ExxonMobil and other major oil firms reached in their last nationwide master contract.

That's though Baytown accounted for 57 incidents, including 21 leaks or spills, during the master pact's three-year term, from Feb. 1, 2009-Jan. 31, 2012, according to public reports at the federal Energy Department. Baytown accounted for almost one-third of all 185 ExxonMobil safety incidents in those years. No deaths were reported.

USW Local 13-2001, which represents the workers, says the oil/petrochemical facility needs - among other things-a top-to-bottom "process safety" inspection, where all of its systems are evaluated as a whole, not just one by one.

But when ExxonMobil presented its "last, best and final offer" in mid-April - a legal requirement it must meet before declaring an impasse in bargaining and imposing a lockout - there wasn't a word about process safety, USW says.

"The health and safety language we proposed was the same language in the 2012 National Oil Bargaining agreement that ExxonMobil agreed to for its facilities in Torrance, Calif., Billings, Mont., Chalmette, La., and Beaumont, Texas," Landry said.

"Our union developed this language to help the oil companies do a better job at process safety so that problems can be detected before they result in fires, explosions, releases and other incidents that impact the health and safety of our workers and the local community."

The process safety language calls for an USW representative on inspection teams, process safety training for plant workers, fatigue prevention and an annual site process safety review at Baytown, which produces between 540,000 and 562,000 barrels per day of oil, petrochemicals and related products.

"ExxonMobil negotiators said they didn't want the USW dictating health and safety language to them. They said they were the leaders in safety," Landry said.

Photo: Jacques Brinon/AP

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