Tensions flare as picket lines crossed in U.S. refinery strike

USW pushes for better pay, jobs
By Erwin Seba
|labour-reporter.com|Last Updated: 03/03/2015

HOUSTON (Reuters) — Personal friendships are turning sour as some workers cross picket lines in the lingering U.S. refinery strike, with companies pushing labourers to return to work by saying they could lose their bonuses.

A month into the biggest U.S. refinery walkout in 35 years, money is tight as strike pay from the United Steelworkers union is a fraction of normal wages.

About 6,550 workers are on strike at 15 plants, including 12 refineries with a fifth of U.S. capacity. Companies are relying on temporary replacements to keep plants open.

Up to 70 employees, out of 800, at Royal Dutch Shell Plc's Deer Park, Texas, refinery have decided to return to work, prompting feelings of betrayal, sources with knowledge of the situation said.

"I don't know if I could go back. I don't know if I could look them in the eye," one striking worker said of returning to work with those who have crossed the picket line.

Another striking worker, who like his peer declined to be identified, complained of frayed personal ties. "Friendships are gone," he said.

Shell has said it did not initiate contact with labourers who returned to work. Many of them were on strike, but are not formal union members under Texas' right-to-work laws.

On Monday, Tesoro Corp., which has been hit by walk-outs at three of its West Coast refineries, appeared to ask employees to give up the strike by saying those at work would receive their 2014 bonuses.

"This week those of us at work and eligible will receive the monetary recognition of our 2014 efforts in the form of (a bonus)," Tesoro executive Keith Casey said in a letter to employees, a copy of which was shared with reporters.

Striking workers in Texas said the mood was tense.

"Before we went out, all we heard from the managers was 'We're one site, we're one team.' Now they won't even talk to us," said a third striking Deer Park worker.

Negotiations between the USW and Shell, which leads talks for the oil companies, will resume on Wednesday. A deal was nearly reached last week but collapsed.

The USW has pushed for higher pay and more jobs under a three-year contract that would include tougher rules to prevent fatigue, which the union has tied to accidents.

But focusing on fatigue could hurt overtime. Some workers earn about $70,000 a year before extra time.

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