Starting on Feb. 1, roughly 3,800 union refinery workers across the country walked away from their jobs, and shockwaves from that strike have registered here in San Luis Obispo County.
Since Jan. 28, a rotating group of members of the Grover Beach-based United Steelworkers (USW) Local 534 chapter have been picketing at the gates of the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo.
Juan Zepeda, the financial secretary/treasurer of the local USW chapter and a sulfur plant operator at the Santa Maria Refinery, told New Times that his chapter represents 69 of the approximately 135 workers at the refinery.
“We are just picketing and not on strike yet, but it’s important for us to express ourselves and show solidarity with the USW,” Zepeda said. “The picketing shows [Phillips 66] that they haven’t torn us apart yet.”
At the national level, USW called for a work stoppage involving roughly 3,800 workers at nine refineries on Feb. 1: five in Texas, one in Kentucky, one in Washington, and two in California (Tesoro refineries in Martinez and Carson).
According to Nashville-based USW spokeswoman Lynne Hancock, union members account for about 64 percent of the country’s oil-refining capacity at more than 230 refineries, oil terminals, pipelines, and petrochemical facilities in the U.S. The ongoing strike is the biggest USW work stoppage since 1980, when workers went on strike for 93 days.
Hancock told New Times that there are two levels of negotiations currently underway to resolve the union’s recently expired bargaining contract with several oil companies.
One national-level negotiation is occurring at an “undisclosed location” and dealing with broad issues like wages, benefits, and working conditions. There are also various local-level negotiations between union reps and oil companies addressing narrower, specialized items.
“At this time, there hasn’t yet been a decision to expand the work stoppage,” Hancock said. “More refineries could soon join the strike if necessary, but that decision would be made at the national level.”
Outside the Santa Maria Refinery, Zepeda said 10 to 15 workers have been picketing every day for about a week, adding that—other than showing solidarity—the local USW chapter’s biggest issue is installing a new “fatigue policy” to give overworked employees some relief.
“I can work anywhere from 110 to 148 hours in a two-week period, and that’s typical—it’s almost impossible for refinery workers to have family time,” Zepeda said. “You can only squeeze a nickel so hard before it starts to hurt the other side.
“It’s also a ticking time bomb, it’s a refinery where a lot can go up in flames,” he added. “You’ve got to have people that are alert and have their wits about them—you can’t live with some zombie at the controls.”
A New Times request for comment from Phillips 66 regarding the national strike and the local picketers was directed to Houston-based company spokesman Dennis Nuss.
“Once national bargaining is completed, Phillips 66 will be negotiating a new bargaining contract with the local USW unions that represent each of our refineries covered by expiring contracts,” Nuss wrote in an email to New Times. “We are committed to reaching a new agreement that is good for our employees and protects the future of some of the best jobs in American industry.
“We are hopeful that we can achieve this goal without any interruption to our operations,” he added. “In addition to competitive wages and benefits, we expect the next contract to support our local efforts to improve safety and productivity.”