BEAUMONT, Texas — Over 650 oil workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 13-243, have been locked out at the ExxonMobil Refinery and Lubricant Blending and Packaging plant here since bosses marched them out of the facility four months ago. They had rejected company demands that they give up long-standing seniority bidding rights and efforts to divide the workers by creating different contracts at the refinery and lubricant plant.
“Nothing’s changed,” Darrell Kyle, president of the local who has worked there for 27 years, told this Militant worker-correspondent from Los Angeles and Alyson Kennedy, chair of the Texas Socialist Workers Party campaign from Dallas, at the union hall Sept. 10. “We give the company a proposal, they go out for 30 minutes, come back and say they aren’t interested. Since they locked us out in May we’ve made over 20 proposals. They rejected all of them.
“This is all about control for them, control over union rights and human rights,” he said. “At one meeting in June every time one of us spoke, the company negotiating committee members just laughed at us. They’re trying to decertify the union.”
Texas is a “right to work” state where workers don’t have to join the union even if the plant is organized and they get the benefit of union representation. The company is trying to keep operations going, using managers and replacement workers.
“They’re trying to get signatures in the plant and through social media to sign workers up to get rid of the union,” Kyle said. “The company tried decertification efforts in Baton Rouge and Baytown, Louisiana. They were unsuccessful.”
There is a national oil contract that expires in February, but this ExxonMobil plant isn’t covered by it. When the Steelworkers union went on the first nationwide oil strike in 35 years in 2015, ExxonMobil here and some other bosses refused to sign the national agreement.
‘The union is essential’
On Sept. 11 we were joined by other supporters of the Militant bringing solidarity to workers on the picket line and knocking on doors in nearby Port Arthur to help get the truth out about the oil workers’ battle.
“We work during hurricanes, everything,” John Porter, an A operator in the blending and packaging plant for 23 years, told us. “Two days before they locked us out, they said we were world class, ‘essential,’ then they locked us out.”
“In my opinion it’s all about trying to break the union,” he said.
“I know how important bidding and seniority rights are. No union, no seniority,” locked-out USW member Lance LaStrape told us at another gate. “They want to take away the A operator, which deletes the person with experience. It’s a safety issue.
“Trusting the company to do the right thing is like writing a blank check,” he said. “We didn’t walk out, we were put out. Southeast Texas is like a big industrial town. You have to know that everyone else, all other refineries are paying attention to what happens here.
“When they take away bidding, it opens the door to favoritism, nepotism. The racial question is involved also,” LaStrape, who is African American, said. “Most of the workers in my department and most supervisors are white. The B and P, which is an entry level job, is more highly African American.”
Solidarity is critical
Workers said the support they’re getting is crucial in the long fight. “Sometimes we get five to six checks a day from unions and others to support us,” Karla Conning, secretary-treasurer of the local and refinery worker, told us. “Strikers can come by on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get supplies from the food bank.”
The local renewed its subscription to the Militant. Issues are laid out in the lobby of the union hall, where we were told many workers read them.
One of the people we met on a doorstep later that day was Nyoka Stewart, a retired surgery technician. “I’m from a union family. My father worked in the longshore union and my husband was a seafarer,” she said after we described what the locked-out workers face. “I will definitely send a contribution to the locked-out workers at ExxonMobil.”
Donations and letters of support can be sent to USW Local 13-243, 2490 South 11th St., Beaumont, TX 77701.