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Chevron Richmond Refinery (Photo: Wikipedia)

Chevron Richmond Refinery Workers Strike Over 5% Bay Area Cost of Living Increase, Work Hours

‘If oil goes down and the replacement workers are good, the USW may have to severely rethink things’

By Evan Symon, March 21, 2022 12:28 pm

More than 500 United Steelworkers oil workers at the the Chevron Richmond refinery went on strike at 12:01 A.M. on Monday following failure to come to a new contract.

The Contract issue dates back to last month, when the majority of U.S. refineries and the USW came to an agreement of a 12% pay raise over 4 years after weeks of protests at refineries nationwide. Agreed to in late February, the new contracts came in just before gas prices started drastically increasing due to the Russian-Ukrainian War.

“The industry came to the table with demands that would have undermined generations of collective bargaining progress,” said USW International president Thomas Conway last month. “Thanks to the solidarity of the membership and the hard work of our national oil bargaining policy committee, we have achieved a fair agreement.”

However, some local unions needed advanced individual negotiations due to issues pertaining to specific refineries and plants. In Richmond, USW Local 5 had two additional demands in addition to the national policy changes. Instead of just a 12% increase, union reps in Richmond pushed for a 17% increase due to the high cost of living in the Bay area, as well as a reduction of work hours of the 60-70 hour weeks some sometimes work, with additional staffing offered up as a way to make it happen.

Both sides negotiated into March, with the USW members twice voting down the updated Chevron offers which were not made public. Chevron maintains that the offers went above and beyond the national contracts, but that the USW was unwilling to budge from their position. The USW had to resort to rolling 24-hour contracts for weeks while negotiations continued. With neither side willing to return to the bargaining table this week, the USW quickly advised workers to bring home all personal tools this weekend. Chevron also acted, bringing in replacement workers on Sunday.

USW Local 5 Vice President B.K. White noted on Monday that the replacement workers may not be up to the task of running the refinery and that the extra 5% was to simply counter higher cost of living prices.

“This is a complex facility,” White said on Monday. “We do a lot of training and somehow magically they came up with enough people we have never seen before to run the plant. We pray they are safe in there.

“The cost of living in the Bay Area, as any blue collar worker knows, has gotten to the point that makes it hard to live. Our workers have to live 45 minutes to an hour out. We are just asking for a little bit of relief. A cost of living increase for the Bay Area it’s not for us to get rich. Our medical, Kaiser, went up 23 percent this year and the company did not contribute another penny to it.”

Gas prices to not go up despite Richmond strike

However, Chevron has maintained that the national increase, as well as what Chevron offered to give as extra in counter offers, was more than fair and despite the strike, prices of the gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel produced at the plant would not go up.

“The union’s demands exceeded what the company believes to be reasonable and moved beyond what was agreed to as part of the national pattern bargaining agreement,” the oil company said Sunday night. “Chevron Richmond is fully prepared to continue normal operations to safely and reliably provide the products that consumers need. We anticipate no issues in maintaining a reliable supply of products to the market. Chevron remains committed to safe operations for our workers and communities.”

“We believe our contract offer is fair, competitive and responsive to USW concerns. However, the union’s demands exceeded what the company believes to be reasonable. Chevron is committed to continuing to negotiate toward an agreement and has taken steps to continue normal operations at the facility.”

Many outside observers noted on Monday while there are several things to sympathize with the striking union workers on, they picked the absolute wrong time to not at least come to a temporary agreement while oil prices nationwide have gone up.

“San Francisco cost of living and long workweeks are something that should be taken into consideration,” Darren Morgan, a former negotiator researcher who worked on several prominent union negotiations in the Midwest and West Coast in the 1980’s through the 2010’s told the Globe on Monday. “But look at when they are doing this. Right when Americans need refineries to keep going the most. It’s a tactic always employed when possible. If there is something big up that proves your worth, strike. Every Olympics this happens with construction workers wherever you are, and many teacher strikes happen during testing season right when students need them most.”

“They’re trying to use a war to their advantage though, at least that’s what it looks like. They may not say it and would probably deny it, but look at the timing. Same with higher gas prices. Using the fears of higher gas if the refinery shuts down. Why do you think Chevron volunteered that info in their press releases? Why are the replacement workers keeping the refinery going getting a lot of attention? Because gas prices won’t go up because of the strike and the union lost a lot of leverage since the replacement workers are doing the job.”

“This is by the book on both sides, but the big factors are if oil goes down, if the war is still going on, and how good the replacement workers are. Because if oil goes down and the replacement workers are good, the USW may have to severely rethink things.”

As of Monday, both Chevron and the USW have said that no new contract plans are in the works. The 2022 Chevron Richmond strike is the first there since 1980 during a nationwide refinery walkout.

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