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They Wanted to Keep Working; Exxon-Mobil Locked Them Out: Facing deunionization efforts and the existential threat of climate change, oil refiners in Beaumont, Texas, seek a fair contract

By Mindy Isser - In These Times, May 24, 2021

The lockout began May 1, known in most parts of the world as International Workers’ Day. In a matter of hours, the ExxonMobil Corporation escorted 650 oil refiners in Beaumont, Texas, off the job, replacing experienced members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13 – 243 with temporary workers in an effort to force a vote on Exxon’s latest contract proposal. USW maintains the proposal violates basic principles of seniority, and more than three weeks after the union members were marched out of their facility, they remain locked out.

“We would have rather kept everyone working until we reached an agreement,” Bryan Gross, a staff representative for USW, tells In These Times. ​“That was our goal.”

Because strikes and lockouts are often measures taken under more dire circumstances, either when bargaining has completely stalled or is being conducted in bad faith, USW proposed a one-year contract extension. But Exxon rejected the offer, holding out for huge changes to contractual language regarding seniority, safety and layoffs. ​“It’s a control issue,” Gross adds. ​“Exxon wants control.”

As the oil industry attempts to deskill (and ultimately deunionize) its labor force, refinery workers like those in Beaumont find themselves under siege. Not only is their industry buckling beneath the weight of a global health crisis, but climate change has come to threaten their very livelihoods. Many workers remain skeptical of existing plans for a just transition.

Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: A Just Transition in the Oil & Gas Drilling and Refining Sectors

Letter to Contra Costa County, California on Just Transition from Fossil Fuels

By staff - Sunflower Alliance, November 20, 2020

Just weeks after Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors declared a climate emergency, a diverse group of environmental, labor, and public health advocates sent a letter to the Board calling for a planned and equitable transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy, in what many are calling a “just transition” that supports refinery workers and frontline communities.

“We applaud your recent Declaration of a Climate Emergency in Contra Costa County, which underlines the need to ‘plan for a ‘just transition’ away from a fossil-fuel dependent economy.’  In furtherance of this goal, we seek your immediate action to ensure just transitions for workers and communities threatened with sudden abandonment by refineries located in the County.  We believe climate protection must go hand in hand with environmental and economic justice,”  reads the letter’s opening paragraph.  See the full letter here.

The letter highlights concerns over recent news regarding changes to traditional refinery operations in Contra Costa County—including Marathon’s announcement of a permanent end to crude oil processing at its Martinez refinery, and Phillips 66’s notice of an impending partial closure of its San Francisco Refinery facilities in Rodeo, Franklin Canyon, and Arroyo Grande.

Both companies have proposed changes that would significantly decrease the production of non-petroleum fuels, which will involve shuttering large portions of the refinery.  Neither company has identified plans for full cleanups of their industrial sites, nor have they made adequate commitments to support the wages, health care, or pensions of workers whose jobs are threatened by these changes.

“The large oil companies who have for so long made their profits in Contra Costa County’s local communities ought to be the ones to pay the steep cost associated with their departure,”  the letter states.

The letter also identifies how the communities facing shuttered refinery operations are ultimately at risk for future prospects for environmentally healthy and economically sustainable development.

Toxic Relationship: How refineries affect climate change and racial and economic injustice

By Jean Tepperman - East Bay Express - July 22, 2020

California should begin gradually reducing output from its oil refineries in order to avoid climate catastrophe and to make the transition to clean energy as equitable as possible. That's the conclusion of a major new report released July 6 by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), endorsed by more than 40 environmental and social justice organizations.

While most people agree on the need to use less fossil fuel, many fear that requiring refineries to reduce production could lead to higher gasoline prices and a big economic hit for workers and communities that depend on refineries for income. Report-author Greg Karras responded, "If we start now, doing it gradually, it will give us the time to replace refinery-dependent economics." The report calls for cutting production 4 to 7 percent a year, starting in 2021.

California has set targets for cutting carbon emissions between now and 2050: the state's share of global cuts needed to keep temperature increases below catastrophic levels. Because the carbon that causes climate change builds up in the atmosphere, California has a carbon "budget"—the total amount it can emit from now until 2050. According to Decommissioning California Refineries, California will have to refine much less oil per year to avoid blowing through this carbon "budget" by about 2037.

"California is the biggest oil-refining center in Western North America," Karras said. "Oil refined here emits more carbon than all other activities in the state combined." Even if all other sources of carbon are reduced on schedule, Karras said, "we must refine much less oil if we hope to meet the state's carbon limit."

"We have to break free from our toxic relationship with oil before it takes us over a cliff," Karras said. "When you're in a car heading toward a cliff, it matters when you start putting on the brakes."

The sooner we start, the more likely we are to escape the worst impacts of climate change.

The issue is not just climate, said Andres Soto of CBE. He pointed out that refinery pollution is concentrated in communities like Richmond, centers of racial and economic injustice.

"Only 20 percent of Richmond is Euro-American," he said.

And the health consequences of having a refinery as a neighbor are severe.

Rodeo, another Contra Costa refinery town, "is in the 98th percentile for asthma," said resident Maureen Brennan, and it has high rates of skin disease, autoimmune disease and cancer—all linked to refinery-generated pollution.

Retired refinery worker Steve Garey, past president of a United Steelworkers local in Washington state, said starting now to plan for reduced refinery production could actually benefit refinery workers, since "the movement away from fossil fuels and toward renewables is going to accelerate. It's an economic reality. Renewables are cheaper than fossil fuel and getting cheaper all the time."

Recently when the pandemic cut demand for gasoline, Garey said, the Marathon refinery in Martinez shut down, leaving the workers and community stranded.

The current drop in oil use, Karras said, gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn away from the cliff and build a cleaner and more equitable recovery.

Poisoned by the shale? Investigations leave questions in oil tank deaths

By Mike Soraghan - EnergyWire, featured on Dakota Resource Council, October 23, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

KILLDEER, N.D. — Dustin Bergsing was 21 and six weeks a father when he arrived here at Marathon Oil Corp.’s Buffalo 34-12H well pad, a square of red gravel carved into a low hill.

By dawn, he was dead.

A co-worker found him shortly after midnight, slumped below the open hatch of a tank of Bakken Shale crude oil. It was Bergsing’s job to pop the hatch and record how much was inside. An autopsy found he died of “hydrocarbon poisoning due to inhalation of petroleum vapors.”

An environmental engineer in Marathon’s Dickinson, N.D., regional office heard about it a few days later. He’d been warning his bosses they were creating a dangerous buildup of lethal gases in their tanks. But, he said, they ignored him.

“With that excessive gas, you get lightheaded,” he said in a deposition with the attorney for Bergsing’s family, Fred Bremseth. “It would be just like carbon monoxide. You’re gonna doze off, and Katy bar the doors, man — you’re dead.”

An investigation of the drilling industry’s worker safety record and what it means for those living amid the boom. Click here to read the series.

Bergsing died in January 2012. At least three other men have died this way during the Bakken Shale boom, found lifeless on steel catwalks, next to the hatches they’d opened to measure the bounty of the shale.

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