In the midst of this year’s major energy-related developments, a very interesting bit of drama has been taking place in Beaumont, Texas, where ExxonMobil
My first reaction upon becoming aware of the dispute was to ask why Exxon was engaging in labor negotiations with any union in Texas, which is famously the nation’s most populous right-to-work state. This was especially intriguing since the USW chapter’s membership involves just a fraction of the overall work force. A little research revealed that Local 13-243 was established during the buildup to World War II in 1940 – the refinery itself was built and opened in 1903 after the discovery of the nearby Spindletop field – long before the Texas right-to-work law was passed in 1993, and was thus grandfathered into ongoing existence under federal collective bargaining laws.
So that explains that.
When the company and union officials were not able to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement in January, Local 13-243 put Exxon on a 75-day notice of intent to strike. Exxon, as is typical in this kind of dispute, responded by placing the union on notice of intent to lock its members out. After a series of back-and-forth negotiations in the ensuing weeks failed to resolve the impasse, the company did finally initiate a lockout effective May 1, and that lockout remains in effect as of this writing.
During the ensuing 5+ months, the union has leveled a series of unsubstantiated accusations at the company, alleging things like lack of good faith negotiations despite the 40+ meetings that have taken place. Union employees have engaged in picketing in locations like the company’s headquarters in Irving and during the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.
But the lockout remains in effect because, in a vote on Tuesday, the union membership rejected the company’s latest offer at settlement. As reported by 12NewsNow in Beaumont, about 400 of the 583 union members cast votes during the day, and a clear majority voted ‘no’ on the proposed agreement, which would have increased wages, awarded bonuses and enhanced benefits to union employees. The company had placed members on notice that those offers would be rescinded as of November 1 if the proposed settlement was not accepted by that time.
“We are disappointed that the company’s enhanced offer was not ratified,” Exxon spokesperson Julie King said in a statement. “The lockout of USW-represented workers will continue. We will continue to operate our facility safely and reliably with our fully trained workforce.”
That last point is important. Despite 583 employees (the chapter boasted 650 members in January, so has seen some attrition during the dispute) being locked out of their jobs, both the refinery and packaging plant have managed to continue operations over the last 5 months without interruption. The company has been able to fill the union void with a combination of other permanent employees working overtime and extended shifts, as well as the hiring and training of contract employees.
Mind you, these are not menial jobs we’re talking about here. These are jobs that pay upwards of $90,000 per year and more and come with healthcare and other company-provided benefits. One employee who voted ‘yes’ on the proposal expressed concern about the reality that the company has seen no operational disruptions during the lockout, saying he voted “yes” because he’s “concerned if Exxon has survived this long without the union workers, does ExxonMobil really need them on the job?”
It’s a concern shared by many other union members. In fact, more than 30% of the members signed a petition to decertify the USW chapter which was submitted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on October 5. Reuters reports that the NLRB is expected to set a mid-November date for a vote on whether to approve that petition.
In the meantime, the company appeared to slightly soften its November 1 deadline for rescinding the offer that was rejected in Tuesday’s vote, saying that it remains on the table “until further notice.”
These workers have no doubt suffered through a lot of hardship over the last 5 months, despite food and other assistance provided by the union. But these are self-inflicted wounds related to high-paying jobs with great benefits that tens of thousands of other Texans would love to fill during these difficult economic times. Elevating the workers’ risks even further, they are jobs the company has already demonstrated it is fully capable of filling quickly and safely while encountering no disruptions in operations.
Bryan Gross, a USW International representative, said that “Exxon’s take it or leave it offer is not what we’re looking for.” Well, yes, that is the nature of negotiations, after all. Gross would not disclose the vote totals, but said that the ‘no’ decision among the 400 who voted was overwhelming.
“If (members) stick with us, we’ll get a deal,” he said.
That is of course the promise that union representatives invariably make to their members during disputes such as this one, and it’s a promise that often turns out to be accurate. But in this specific set of circumstances, this particular union chapter does not appear to be making its promises from a position of strength.