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Deal heads off strike at plants

By L.M. SIXEL Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Feb. 3, 2009, 11:04PM

Thousands of refinery and chemical plant workers will receive a 3 percent raise each year for the next three years along with a $2,500 contract ratification bonus, according to the terms of a tentative agreement reached Tuesday between industry negotiator Shell Oil Co. and United Steelworkers International.

The contract, which still must be ratified by membership, would cover 30,000 workers nationwide, including 4,200 in the Houston area. Specific elements of the deal are secret until members have a chance to review the proposal, but local unions in Montana and California posted the basic details on their Web sites.

“These were tough negotiations given the economic conditions of an economy still in a total free-fall,” the union’s president, Leo W. Gerard, said in a prepared statement. “The oil companies were not willing to work with us fully to improve process safety.”

The deal, approved by the union’s National Oil Policy Committee, will be presented to all Shell/Motiva local union bargaining units, the Steelworkers said. Then it will come up for votes at other locals around the country.

The minimum standard

The new contract is expected to serve as the minimum standard for wages, benefits and working conditions for union-represented employees nationally, the Steelworkers said.

However, individual plants must hammer out their own deals with employees, and it was clear Tuesday that those issues are not yet resolved.

“Shell negotiated an agreement for Shell,” said David Harpole, spokesman for LyondellBasell Industries’ refinery in Houston.

“We will now negotiate an agreement for our facility.”

Asked for clarification, Harpole said he couldn’t say whether LyondellBasell would follow the wages and benefits pattern set by Shell.

Some individual locals have their own unique issues, meaning the threat of a walkout remains at some plants. For local Shell employees, that includes a dispute over whether health and safety rules are subject to arbitration, a company proposal to strip seniority from job bidding and more use of contract workers.

“Shell is pleased that it has reached a mutually satisfactory tentative agreement on national bargaining items with the USW for our manufacturing sites,” Shell spokesman Stan Mays said in a written statement.

“The current contracts remain in force until the respective local unions conclude bargaining and ratify their new contracts. We are optimistic agreements will be ratified at the local level in the near future,” Mays said.

Backing off safety

Steelworkers Vice President Gary Beevers, who is in charge of the national oil bargaining program, said the union chose to reach a deal on economic issues and backed off some safety demands, although he added that workers will continue to press for improvements.

“With the USW completely understanding the severe economic crisis the nation finds itself in, we certainly didn’t want to contribute to the economic struggles of the American public by calling a national strike and possibly seeing the spiking of gas and diesel prices, home foreclosures of our members, or any other hardships,” he said.

The sides averted a strike early Sunday morning, when the labor contract expired, by agreeing to extend the old agreement.

Since then, employees have been working under a day-by-day contract extension.

Union officials had said during the course of the negotiations that they were seeking “substantial” raises, better health and safety protections and for the energy companies to pick up a bigger portion of the cost of health insurance.

No details were available Tuesday on provisions involving health and safety.

Similar to earlier offer

The offer accepted Tuesday appears to be similar to the one Shell offered on Saturday that calls for three years of 3 percent raises and a $2,500 bonus.

Currently, the national average wage is $30.06 per hour.

Area facilities affected by the negotiations include Shell’s Deer Park refinery, chemical plant and chemical lab; BP’s Texas City refinery and chemical plant; the INEOS Nova chemical plant in Texas City; Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.’s plant in Pasadena; BP Pipeline; and Pasadena Refining System.

Workers at the Marathon Oil Corp.’s refinery in Texas City and Exxon Mobil Corp.’s plant in Baytown are also expected to be covered by the new agreement, but their contracts don’t expire until later.

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