USW tries to blackmail oil workers to accept sellout agreement

The United Steelworkers union is trying to beat back rank-and-file opposition to its four-year labor agreement with the oil industry, which will further set back the living standards and working conditions of 30,000 refinery and petrochemical workers at Marathon and other oil giants. At so-called “informational meetings” this week, local USW officials used threats and lies to sell the contract to largely skeptical and angry workers who are currently voting on the deal.

The deal is almost identical to the agreement the USW previously rejected, saying that Marathon, which is leading the negotiations for the industry, “was seeking to overturn generations of collective bargaining,” according to USW President Tom Conway. The USW then kept workers on the job for more than three weeks after the expiration of the contract on February 1. Then last Friday, after Conway held intensive discussions with President Biden over ramping up production as the White House intensifies its conflict with Russia, the USW suddenly announced it had reached a “fair contract” that was unanimously endorsed by its Policy Committee.

After recording the highest profits in years in 2021, the energy monopolies are further profiteering from the sharp rise in crude oil prices due to the war crisis in Eastern Europe. In the last three months alone, the top seven companies have made $33 billion in net profits and announced massive stock buyback programs to boost the fortunes of their top shareholders.

The USW-backed deal, however, only includes annual raises of 2.5 percent, 3.0 percent, 3.0 percent and 3.5 percent over the four-year contract. With inflation running at a 7.5 percent yearly rate, and with no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to protect workers, the deal would result in a significant cut in real wages by the end of the contract. The USW has also thrown in a $2,500 signing bonus, from which taxes and union dues will be deducted.

“Almost exact same wage proposals the company wanted,” a BP worker in Whiting, Indiana, told the WSWS. “Ratification bonus a slap in the face and won’t even cover increased cost of living for workers in past year. No job protections and no agreement to hire back thousands of laid-off workers in past year. This TA [tentative agreement] is the equivalent of ‘shut up and get back to work and stay there,’” he said.

Workers will also continue to bear the burden of inflating health care costs and exhausting 16-hour shifts and managerial negligence which leads to accidents, deaths and injuries.

At the same time, the oil bosses are determined to drive out older, higher paid workers and replace them with at-will employees, including probationary and contract workers, who have no job protections and few if any benefits. The contract includes no protections from a further consolidation of job classifications, which will be used to drive older workers out of the industry.

“The mood at GBR seems to be a mix of disbelief and frustration,” a Marathon worker at the Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, Texas, told the WSWS. “Everyone feels like this deal isn’t any better than the one rejected a few weeks ago. Lots of people angry at USW.”

According to reports from workers, union officials are trying to blackmail them into voting for the national agreement. Traditionally, workers vote on both the national agreement, which sets minimum wage, health care and other standards, as well as local agreements, which can provide workers with additional benefits, including paid sick time policy and other local protections. This year, however, the USW and Marathon agreed to extend all local agreements if workers ratified the national deal.

During the informational meetings this week, USW officials threatened workers, saying if they rejected the national package, the company could come back and demand sweeping concessions on the local level, gutting whatever protections they have locally. If workers struck on these local issues, the USW officials warned, they would be left isolated by the USW International and forced to fight alone.

“They’re framing it as if we don’t accept this national package, we will have to negotiate locally and will lose things here, like we do every time we negotiate,” a Texas Marathon worker said.

Hanging over the heads of workers was the miserable betrayal of the ExxonMobil workers in Beaumont, Texas. After isolating these workers during their 10-month lockout, the USW rammed through a deal that quadruples the probationary period for new hires to 24 months, essentially creating a tier of at-will employees with no job security, guts job classifications and gives management unilateral power to assign workers to any position in the refinery.

The USW decided to hold the first vote on the national contract this week at the Port Arthur, Texas, Marathon refinery, where most workers personally know Beaumont workers who were forced to accept this slave’s charter. The deal was passed although a large number of workers boycotted the vote out of disgust.

At the same time, USW have had the audacity to claim that workers must accept the deal because their fellow workers lack the backbone to conduct a strike. This is contemptible lie. Workers have been determined to strike and win substantial improvements but the biggest obstacle they confront are the scabs in the leadership of the USW.

The Oil Workers Rank-and-File Committee (OWRFC) was launched last week to provide workers with a voice and leadership to defeat the sellout agreement and advance a program based on what workers need, not what the corporate executives and USW executives say is affordable.

In its founding statement, the OWRFC outlined its demands, including:

  • A 40 percent raise and the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments (COLA);
  • Restoration of the 8-hour day;
  • Expansion of paid time off, including a six-week vacation during the first year of service and one month of paid paternity leave;
  • Fully paid medical benefits;
  • The hiring of more full-time workers;
  • The establishment of worker-run health and safety committees and the abolition of corrupt joint labor-management committees;
  • Workers’ control over production rates and input over capital expenditures;
  • Fully paid pensions and retiree medical benefits after 25 years of service;
  • The elevation of contractors to full-time positions, with the same pay and benefits.

The OWRFC statement called for a rejection of the sellout deal. The committee wrote:

“This contract can only be understood within the context of the Biden administration’s response to the war in Ukraine, which it deliberately provoked by backing Russia into a corner. For weeks, Biden has said that he would do everything in his power to ensure that the war in Eastern Europe would not impact prices or lead to supply issues. Now, only a day after the war began, the USW suddenly has sprung this contract upon us which even their own highlights show is a betrayal on every point. Once again, workers and their families are the ones who are being told to bear the burden of war even as the oil companies profit from it.”

On Thursday, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the biggest refinery lobby group, which includes Chevron, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Marathon Petroleum, Valero Energy and others, called for the suspension of all future purchases of crude oil and petroleum products from Russia. Behind all the patriotic rhetoric are crude financial concerns as these companies hope to benefit from pushing Russia—the world’s third-largest oil producer—out of the world markets—so they can funnel even more money to their top executives and shareholders.

The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed it wants an uninterrupted supply of gasoline from US refineries to limit the spike in gas prices driven by the crisis in Ukraine. Speaking at a press conference less than 90 minutes before his February 22 meeting with Conway and the others, Biden said, “I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump.” He added, “We are closely monitoring energy supplies for any disruption.”

The “disruption” Biden speaks of includes a potential strike by oil workers. The USW, which has spent decades colluding with the oil, steel and other corporate bosses to reduce the living standards of workers, is preparing to enforce the dictates of the oil bosses and US imperialism on workers.

Workers should reject this sellout agreement and prepare for a national strike to win their demands. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, however, oil workers should join the growing sections of workers, in manufacturing, logistics, health care, education and other sectors, by building rank-and-file committees to take the conduct of their struggles out of the hands of the pro-company and pro-war unions.

If you agree with this, join the Oil Workers Rank-and-File Committee! Contact us today by emailing oilworkersrfc@gmail.com.