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Chevron refinery strike enters fourth week as union and company signal agreement to end strike

Strikers in Richmond (Source: WSWS Media)

On Monday, the strike at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., will enter its fourth week. More than 500 refinery workers have been on strike since March 21, seeking an end to Chevron’s brutal ‘standby’ policy, unsafe working conditions, overwork and a raise that doesn’t cover soaring cost of life. Like workers across the country, workers in Richmond face rising costs for gas, food, rent and other basic needs.

The strike comes as protests unfold around the world against the soaring cost of living. These protests have taken place in countries as far apart as Spain, Peru, Sudan, Iraq and Sri Lanka, where protesters demanding an affordable standard of living forced the resignation of the entire presidential cabinet.

The United Steelworkers (USW) kept the strike of more than 500 workers in Richmond, Calif., secret, with USW workers across the country and the world knowing next to nothing of their brothers and sisters’ struggle. In Richmond, workers have reported that there is no strike pay yet, even though union bureaucrats have received 100% of their wages and even though the union has more than $1 billion in pay. assets accumulated thanks to workers’ contributions!

On Friday, the financial press announced that USW and Chevron would meet on Monday “to discuss a possible end to a strike”, according to Reuters. Chevron’s spokesman told reporters, “We look forward to” the meeting.

Workers must be warned. Chevron is happy to end this strike on its terms, and the USW is trying to help them. The fundamental problems of unsafe and overworked working conditions and wages not adjusted to the rising cost of living will not be addressed.

The fundamental issues workers are striking on cannot be won as long as the union is able to isolate the strike. This week, refinery workers from other parts of the country who formed the Committee of Petroleum Workers issued a statement calling on all refinery workers to prepare for a nationwide strike and tear up the rotten national contract.

There is an urgent need for workers to organize to ensure that no return to work is made until they have had a full week to study the text of any contract tentatively accepted by the USW. Workers have the right to read the contract, discuss it democratically, make their own decisions and monitor the vote count to prevent fraud.

Oil workers picketing the Chevrons refinery in Richmond, California (Source: WSWS Media)

the WSWS spoke to Chevron strikers earlier this week on the picket line. “Fred”, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said he saw a significant deterioration in working conditions three years ago at the factory.

“The units have become dangerous,” he said. He explained that Chevron was not performing adequate preventative maintenance on the infrastructure. Equipment is not repaired and leaks are common, posing a health risk to workers and residents. Even strident steam leaks are not repaired in a timely manner, exposing workers to multiple risks (burns, tinnitus and inability to communicate effectively).

The net result, Fred said, was that the company “can’t retain employees, who are overworked, understaffed and underpaid. Instead of making jobs more attractive, they punish us with overwork and fatigue.

Another hated part of Chevron is the Be ready and break out system. Because the company isn’t hiring enough employees, it places employees in a reserve system, where 18 shifts per 28-day cycle are considered “reserve.” During these shifts, five to 10 employees are on standby and cannot travel and lead a normal life with family obligations. Fred explained that with stand-by, “you can be punished for not showing up when called.”

He noted that oil workers had sacrificed during the pandemic just to prop up wealthy Chevron executives. He explained that they were “forced to present themselves as ‘essential workers’ without any hazard pay”. Meanwhile, Chevron management was working from home “playing with their kitties.”

“All their bonuses are based on our work. Thanks to workers during the pandemic, Chevron has returned to profit. They made 75% of bonuses on the backs of the workers. Fred explained that the workers were able to run the factory for “two years and not a manager in sight!”

Now the managers are slowly starting to come back. “No pats on the back for the past two years, just ‘you gotta optimize, do this, do that’.”

An oil striker on strike in Richmond, California (Source: WSWS Media)

Efforts to end the strike come as the Richmond work stoppage has driven up the cost of jet fuel and diesel, which has had a significant impact on production and shipping on the West Coast. Attempts to end the strike also come as oil workers at ExxonMobil’s Fawley refinery in Southampton, England, went on strike for the same reasons as workers in Richmond: an insulting pay rise of 2.5 from the company.

Richmond’s courageous strike dealt a blow to the union and oil companies’ bid to impose a nationwide four-year contract on 30,000 oil refinery and petrochemical workers.

In March, the United Steel Workers tried to bring its oil refinery and petrochemical workers into the deal under the leadership of the Biden administration. The agreement provided for a first year increase of only 2.5% and an average annual increase of 3%. This will mean a substantial loss of income for these workers, given that inflation is at its highest level in 40 years of 7.9% per year.

Biden met with the USW president, after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, to ensure the union prevented any form of strikes from taking place and that no oil supply disruptions occurred .

While most locals have now voted to accept the contract, workers across the country have been pressured and intimidated into doing so.

For example, at the Phillips 66 refinery in Billings, Montana, the USW ordered a new vote on the contract after workers defeated it in the first vote. Jeff, a worker there, told the World Socialist Website that the USW then used a meeting to intimidate members into voting “yes”.

“We had a meeting where the national representative basically told us to vote to ratify the two contracts [local and national], … it was strongly implied that without a vote to ratify the contract, it would be considered an economic strike, and the company would be free to fire all union members and hire whomever they wanted without a union or binding contract” , did he declare. The deal narrowly passed the second time around.

The Oil Workers Rank-and-File Committee (OWRFC) is calling on workers to take urgent action to put in place methods of communication among themselves to ensure that no return to work takes place until workers have not had the full contract and enough time to read it.

To discuss next steps with the Petroleum Workers Rank Committee, email[email protected]