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Striking oil refinery workers are in a fight for their lives


(March 2, 2015) — Picture this: You’re at the airport, about to board your flight. As you wait by the gate a pair of airline pilots chat nearby. They are your crew.

A Phillips refinery worker and her kids join a picket line in Anacortes in early February. Credit: Jonathan Rosenblum.

“I’m so exhausted,” says one, sipping a large coffee. “This’ll put me at 15 duty hours today. And I haven’t had a day off in a month – at least 12 hours every single day for the last 30 days. The stress is just killing me.”

“I know,” replies the other, yawning widely. “I haven’t really seen my family in a month. When I was driving home last night I could barely keep my eyes open. I hope I can do better on the flight tonight.”

Would you get on the plane? Of course not. The public wouldn’t buy tickets under these circumstances, which is why we have rigorously enforced laws against airlines overworking pilots.

But what if your job depended on getting on that plane? What if your job depended on boarding that plane not just once, but every day – would you get on it?

That’s the choice workers whose products we consume every day have been forced to make. They are refinery workers, subjected to Big Oil’s penchant for working people beyond exhaustion in the name of profits. The jobs inside refineries and cockpits, though of course technically dissimilar, share a common intolerance for error. But we have strict laws governing the safety of airline pilots, while the inhumane overwork of refinery workers proceeds largely within the shadows of our economy, outside of our view and beyond our daily consciences.

That may be changing, however.

tesoro-anacortesCurrently more than 6,000 oil refinery workers and their families are walking picket lines, the first national oil walkout since 1980. Workplace safety is the main issue – for the workers and their families, as well as for communities surrounding refineries. In the coming weeks the number of strikers could swell. In exposing unsafe working conditions to the public, the refinery workers are raising not only contract demands, but also a deeper challenge about the immorality of a profit-driven production system that simply monetizes the loss of human life on corporate spreadsheets. Spiritual progressives would do well to join this growing call, lifting up the values of humanity, justice, and community, and contrasting them with the ethos of destructive capitalism. We are all consumers of the hydrocarbons that these plants produce, and will be for the foreseeable future. We may not know the refinery workers personally, but we have a vested interest in the outcome of this battle. What’s at stake is not just whether refinery workers will have safe working conditions, but whether we will let rampant capitalism trample the human spirit for caring and community.

A Risky Staffing Plan

“We boil oil for a living,” explains Ryan Anderson, a striking Tesoro maintenance operator in Anacortes, Wash. Anderson and his colleagues are responsible for piping crude oil into the refinery and heating it to several hundred degrees. They channel the oil into a distillation column, where the various components separate out. Chemicals are added to the distinct products. They may heat the brew further, compress and process it into gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, butane, and other hydrocarbons that we use every day without a second thought. Besides the danger of manipulating super-heated oil, workers have to continually worry about caustics and poisonous byproducts like benzene and sulphuric acid, which can burn, give them cancer, or just kill them outright.

Gabriel Westergreen protests with his son in Anacortes, Washington. Westergreen says he’s worked up to 62 days in a row without a day off. Credit: Jonathan Rosenblum.

Refinery workers typically are assigned 12-hour shifts, sometimes switching from day to night shift and then back to day shift with only a brief interlude, according to Erin McNutt, an operator at the Philips Ferndale plant, located 30 miles north of Anacortes. Staff cutbacks exacerbate stress. Schedules are tight, with no accommodation for people being out sick or on vacation, McNutt says.

McNutt says she’s worked as much as 45 days in a row. Her colleague, Gabriel Westergreen, has done up to 62 consecutively. At the Ferndale plant, they draw samples of oil to test for hydrogen sulphide levels. Too much of the stuff can kill a person. Some of the pipes they work around have crumbling asbestos insulation. Sometimes the sampling station valves don’t work properly.

At the Tesoro plant in Anacortes, Anderson is responsible for maintaining the refinery’s motors, electrical wiring, safety systems, and pressure and flow transmitters. As with other jobs at the refinery, there’s no margin for error. Anderson says that newly enacted Tesoro fatigue policies have eased the brutal schedule: Now, when doing facility maintenance work, they get a single day off after 13 consecutive days of 12-hour shifts. But even then, management can file an “exception report” and cancel the day off.

“More and more, we use less and less people to do the same amount of work we did in the past,” says Anderson. “It leads to multiple overtime shifts, fatigue at home, stressed marriages, stressed family life, even stress leaving the job. If you’ve worked a 14-hour shift six days in a row, that doesn’t make you a safe driver on the road,” let alone perform safely at work. Anderson recognizes that overtime won’t ever disappear from refinery work, “but the amounts of it are becoming obscene.”

To an outsider, it seems reckless to operate in this matter. Refinery employee costs account for only three cents a gallon on the pump price, according to Westergreen. But there is constant management pressure to trim costs. Hiring and training additional workers costs more than paying overtime to existing staff. Backfilling sick or vacationing workers also costs money. So management does what is known in the corporate world as “lean staffing.”

And then there are company incentives. Solomon Associates provides reports to energy firms like Tesoro, among other things, measuring operating costs at competing refineries and analyzing “workforce optimization.” Tesoro refinery managers compete against other refineries to get lower cost figures in the Solomon reports. “If you have a lower Solomon number,” Westergreen says, “that means you’ve managed to get your staffing costs down even more. If you’re a manager, you win a bigger bonus.”

Texas City: A Man-Made Disaster

What are the consequences of this overwork?

Refinery workers picket Shell in Deer Park, Texas, in early February of this year. Credit: Creative Commons/

On March 23, 2005, workers at BP’s Texas City, Texas plant were restarting the refinery after a scheduled maintenance shutdown. Many were exhausted from the two-month maintenance overhaul. Some had worked 29 days in a row of long shifts. A tower overfilled with oil, sending a geyser shooting upward and casting a plume of vaporized fuel all around.

Veteran refinery worker Pat Nickerson was on-site driving a truck when the tower blew.  “I looked down the road. It looked like fumes, like on a real hot day, you see these heat waves coming up and then, I saw an ignition and a blast. Then my windshield shattered. The roof of the vehicle I was driving caved in on me,” Nickerson told CBS News.

Nickerson jumped out and began digging through the wreckage. “Out of the corner of my eye, there was somebody on the ground.  A guy named Ryan Rodriguez, and he was just kind of staring at me. He couldn’t move because his face was so, you know, deformed and everything from the blast. And some, you know, bones and stuff that were, you know, protruding from his chin,” he told the journalists.

The blast shattered windows ¾ of a mile away. Rodriguez died, as did 14 other workers. Some 180 workers were injured. But tragedy was not new to workers there. The 2005 explosion brought the 30-year Texas City death toll to 38 workers.

The Texas City catastrophe is one of the many waypoints in a trail of fatalities in the U.S. refinery industry. Some called it an accident, suggesting an unfortunate but unintentional event. But the Texas City explosion was a predictable – and in fact, predicted – man-made disaster. The year before, BP executives had ordered managers to cut plant safety investments by 25 percent. In mid-March, 2005, BP’s own health and safety team warned that the refinery likely would “kill someone in the next 12-18 months.” Their timeline was optimistic; just a week later, the plant blew up.

Big Fines but Small Consequences

It’s because of places like Texas City that workers are on strike today. The workers’ demands are fairly straightforward: hire more staff, reduce overtime, provide the skill development people need to protect themselves, and invest in safe equipment.

After Texas City, the federal government instituted new rules on fatigue prevention. But they aren’t being followed, according to McNutt and other workers. Federal safety inspectors are stretched beyond capacity. For the workers, the failure of government to act decisively means they have to demand safety in the most demonstrative way they know: stop working.

Kids, spouses, and community members have been active participants in picketing activities. Credit: Creative Commons/

Five years after the 2005 Texas City explosion, during which time three more Texas City refinery workers were killed, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced $87 million in fines against BP for hundreds of safety violations. It was by far the largest OSHA penalty in history, and it came on top of the company’s guilty felony plea for violating the Clean Air Act at the refinery. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” Labor Secretary Hilda Solis declared triumphantly.

Her pronouncement may well have produced gales of laughter in BP’s executive suites: The government’s 2010 fine represented less than three hours of BP’s annual revenues; budget dust for a company that took in well over $300 billion that year. A real sheriff would have yanked BP’s license to operate and – since corporations insist on being treated as people, at least in the political arena – would have thrown the criminally-convicted executives in prison.

More Preventable Deaths

Just months before the sheriff issued her Texas City reprimand, another refinery blew up. On April 2, 2010, at Ryan Anderson’s Tesoro refinery, supervisor Lew Janz and his night shift crew were restarting a heat exchanger. The 40-year-old unit had not been inspected properly. It was notorious for leaking during startup, but management had told the workers to treat the leaks as “normal occurrences.” The heat exchanger ruptured violently, spewing 500-degree naphtha Janz and six other workers. A huge fireball lit up the night sky and buildings shook miles away. Five workers died quickly. Janz, gruesomely burned over much of his body, was airlifted to a trauma hospital along with another worker. He lay in a medically-induced coma, clinging precariously onto the knife edge of life as stunned Anacortes residents prayed, donated blood, and mourned and buried five of their sons and daughters. Burn specialists and surgeons gingerly tried to coax Janz’ body into recovery. But the medical heroics were not enough; the damage proved beyond repair. Two weeks after the accident, Janz slipped away, surrounded by his two daughters and the woman he had been planning to marry that summer. He was 41. A week later, a seventh worker died from his burns.

The state of Washington cited Tesoro for 44 workplace safety violations. “This explosion and the deaths of these men and women would never have occurred had Tesoro tested their equipment in a manner consistent with standard industry practices, their own policies and state regulations,” said Judy Schurke, director of the state workplace safety and health agency. Schurke’s agency fined Tesoro $2.38 million and underscored the severity of the fine by noting it was a Washington state record.

Industry insiders were blasé. “Relative to how most of these accidents go, that seems like a fairly significant fine but not something that would be material to the firm,” Roger Read, an analyst with Natixis Bleichroeder LLC in Houston, dryly observed. “Between insurance, cash on hand, cash flow, they should be able to absorb a fine of that size.” Even so, Tesoro appealed the fine and got a judge to knock it down by nearly three-quarters, to less than $700,000. That equates to less than 10 minutes of revenue for Tesoro. Any payout to the state, or to Janz’ widow and children, was just a cost of doing business, and a minor one at that.

Five of the seven Anacortes workers who were killed in the 2010 Tesoro refinery explosion. Clockwise, from top left: Daniel Aldridge, Matt Bowen, Donna Van Druemel, Darrin Hoines, and Kathryn Powell. Credit: King-TV/

The Tesoro explosion flung the rural community of Anacortes into all-too-familiar collective shock. Just 11 years prior, an explosion had ripped through the Equilon Puget Sound Refinery, also in Anacortes. Six refinery workers had been burned to death. State investigators found the company negligent. Equilon, now a subsidiary of Shell Oil, agreed to pay the victims’ families $45 million, which works out to how much Shell takes in every 51 minutes today.

Five Rich CEOs, Two More Dead Workers

In 2013, the five largest oil companies announced combined profits of $93 billion, yet another banner year for Big Oil. Much of the profit was plowed back into stock repurchase plans, which, as the Center for American Progress has noted, “increases the value of the remaining shares, providing a bounty to senior executives, boards of directors, and other large shareholders.” The CEOs of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Conoco and Shell took in a combined $100 million that year.

The same year, a refinery worker was burned to death in Beaumont, Texas. Another worker collapsed and died at an Oklahoma refinery. But there were no Texas City-sized disasters. BP was rebounding from the Deepwater Horizon blowout three years prior—where 11 workers had been killed, and the Gulf of Mexico was ruined in the worst oil spill in history. Overall, with only a couple of deaths, 2013 was not a bad year for U.S. refinery safety.

Toward a New Bottom Line

How the current struggle resolves is far from certain. The workers are determined and united. They have power as long as they can hold out. But they are taking on companies that possess vast resources. Key to the outcome is how much economic pain the companies are willing to endure as a result of tapered production. At some point, as with most contentious labor-management bargaining, there will be an agreement; not a peace treaty, but a stasis of forces, a temporary resting place in the ongoing class struggle between workers who want to be treated fairly and go home to their loved ones at night, versus profit-maximizing corporate executives who pore over their Solomon reports and their revenue-and-expense spreadsheets, searching for that extra slice of income.

safety-tesoroWhen that truce moment is reached, the workers will return to their pipes, tanks, valves, control rooms, chemicals, and super-heated oil, and the safety issues currently garnering prominent play will fade from the Internet and the nightly news. As spiritual progressives, we shouldn’t allow this struggle and the dynamic forces behind it to pass quietly from the public arena. We need to take the gift, that by going on strike, the refinery workers have given all of us. Their gift allows us to challenge the public’s conventional expectations of safety, to go beyond the visible airline pilot to the less visible workers whose vital labor allows us to live our everyday lives. No, we wouldn’t get on that plane with the exhausted pilot, and neither should we countenance people having to put themselves at such risk.

Into the foreseeable future, we will need oil and its byproducts. That much is certain. You can debate how much we should produce, and from where, but there’s no question that society will need refineries. It’s also clear that refinery work is inherently dangerous, and we can’t trust BP, Shell, and the other Big Oil companies to produce what society needs in a rational, ethical, or safe manner. There is no reconciling an ethos that elevates corporate profits above people and communities. The present strike may alter the balance of forces a bit, may improve conditions somewhat, but it isn’t going to resolve the underlying conflict of values and class. Yet just by striking, the workers have opened the discussion to basic questions of how and for whom our economy is organized.

We’ve arrived at an important moment to challenge, in a practical way, the values of the capitalist market that so many people internalize without questioning. And as we protest refinery injustice we also should advance a vision of a better system of economic production, one that prioritizes human need, safety, compassion, sustainability, and love for one another and our communities. The immediate issues in the strike are an important opening to extend the conversation about a New Bottom Line, one that judges society’s institutions not by how they maximize money, power, and production, but instead by how they maximize compassion, community, social and economic justice, and environmental sustainability. For the opportunity to engage those around us about fundamental questions of economic purpose, value and community, we have the striking refinery workers to thank.

rosenblum-jonathanJonathan Rosenblum, a longtime labor and community organizer, wrote this article for Tikkun. It is crossposted here with the author’s permission.

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