National members of the United Steelworkers Union are in Baton Rouge for a Friday rally and series of meetings with its local members from the ExxonMobil chemical plant and refinery where there’s dissension among the union’s ranks and a dispute with the company.
A disagreement over a safety program erupted late last month during contract negotiations between the union and the company, both acknowledged Thursday. The contract expired on March 31, but includes a 75-day extension.
The union, which represents nearly 1,000 workers, insisted in negotiations that a process-safety representative be designated locally from its ranks, noting similar arrangements are in place at ExxonMobil facilities in Chalmette; Beaumont, Texas; Torrance, Calif.; and Billings, Mont.
United Steelworkers Union national spokeswoman Lynne Hancock said Thursday that the only sticking point to renewing the labor contract is the company’s refusal to follow the so-called National Oil Bargaining pattern agreement and designate a safety representative.
The company, however, disagrees that the north Baton Rouge chemical and refinery complex is part of any pattern agreement, which is the decades-old negotiating practice of the union sitting down with a single company within a particular industry and ironing out wages, benefits and working conditions. That agreement is then used as a model for the individual unions and plants within that industry.
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Stephanie Cargile said each company with United Steelworkers Union-represented employees chooses whether to offer the pattern terms as part of its local site bargaining.
“In Baton Rouge we have a long history of following the pattern agreement with respect to wage increases and duration of the contract. On other aspects of the pattern, Baton Rouge has often differed,” she said in an email.
Cargile said the four sites that chose to offer the process safety position all have a long history of involvement with the company’s Joint Health and Safety Committee.
“Unfortunately, we do not have that same partnership with union leadership in Baton Rouge,” she said.
“Contractually mandating a number of union-covered positions at a refinery or chemical plant does not guarantee increased safety,” she wrote. “It does, however, create the potential for disputes, grievances and third-party intervention over the training and qualifications required over selections and assignments.”
Some members of USW Local 13-12 agree with the company that the local complex is not part of the pattern agreement and are circulating a petition to decertify the union.
J.J. Webb, an operations controller and union member at the chemical plant, said he decided to circulate the petition because the union held a vote in November that he said was not well publicized and turnout was low. The point of the vote, he said, was to waive a no-strike clause and set up the contract negotiations to fail so that USW 13-12 could align itself with the pattern agreement at the four other plants.
Webb said he finds the potential from those actions for setting up a prolonged company lockout to be unacceptable in the current economy. He said the local union leadership was wrong to downplay such an important election and mislead its membership.
Webb said his petition has almost reached the 30 percent of the 989 represented employees to trigger the involvement of the National Labor Relations Board. One vote over 50 percent would dissolve the union after the results are verified, he said.
Calls to the local union leadership were referred to the USW’s Hancock, who said members supporting the petition don’t understand the importance of pattern agreements. Such agreements were developed in the 1960s to establish a floor on wages and prevent companies from “whipsawing” and playing unions against one another, she said.
A phone hotline for Local 13-12 is playing a recording urging union members who signed the decertification petition to request their names be taken off.
The recording said the circulators of the petition are “step ups” and “agents of the company” who “have met with management and are acting on management’s behalf. If you care about having a voice and rights in the workplace, please don’t sign this petition,” it says.
The recording says that while proponents of the petition are saying a new union can be formed, “if we let the company win this decertification, the company will do everything in its power to never let us have a union again.”
“They don’t want to bargain with us and don’t want us to have any real authority in the plant,” the recording says.
Webb contacted the newspaper unsolicited a couple of minutes after a telephone interview with a company spokeswoman ended. Asked where he got the number, Webb would only say he “saw it around.”
“All we’re saying is we were not adequately informed of the vote,” Webb said.
He said union leadership won’t release any details on the number of people who voted in November, even though such information has been made available in years past. He said the arrival of national union members is to put on a show of solidarity amid the criticism of how the local chapter is conducting itself.
In her written response, Cargile also noted company management’s “final offer was rejected by union leadership without being presented to the general membership of USW-represented Baton Rouge employees for their consideration.”
Asked about the potential for a lock out, USW’s Hancock said she’s not sure what will happen if an agreement is not reached.
“I’m not quite certain if anything has been planned that far ahead,” she said. “I don’t know if they’d ask for another extension and try to negotiate more. We hope we can get this resolved before the 75-day deadline.”
She said the company and union are scheduled to meet next week.