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Contract dispute at Beaumont refinery ends, but questions about union’s future remain

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Martin do Nascimento
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KUT

From Texas Standard:

It took ExxonMobil and the United Steelworkers 10 months to agree on a contract for workers at a refinery in Beaumont. Now, the facility’s employees are back to work. But the contract conflict left big questions about the future of the union.

Justin Miller, politics and government reporter for the Texas Observer, spoke to Texas Standard about the lockout and its impact on the labor movement in Texas. Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity. 

Texas Standard: I think the headline the Texas Observers was, ‘The Battle of Beaumont.’ Was it really that contentious? Why?

Justin Miller: Yeah, this was one of the biggest fights we've seen in the Gulf Coast refineries between labor and the companies in several decades.

Why did it get so contentious? Could you say a little bit more about the refinery and its workers?

This is an ExxonMobil refinery that's been around since the early 20th century, and the United Steelworkers has represented 650 workers there. And Exxon is in the process of expanding out the facility to become one of the largest refineries in North America right now.

Ten months is a long time for a lockout. How did the union members make ends meet during that time and what were the main points of contention?

The main points of contention were centered on seniority bidding, which is giving union workers the right to hire into better paying jobs, as well as the elimination of job classifications that the union has long fought for as a matter of safety protections. And over the course of the lockout, the union provided a food pantry and job assistance and pay assistance for members throughout the throughout the months.

But there was at one point talk of even dissolving the union chapter of the Beaumont refinery during these discussions. Why was that even on the table?

There is a group of workers who led a campaign to decertify the union, and as the lockout dragged on, more and more workers saw that as a way to get back to work, even if it meant getting rid of the union.

So ultimately the two sides came together. What about the contract? How does it compare with what was initially offered?

It's pretty much the same as what ExxonMobil initially said was its last and final offer when the lockout first started. And so, after ten months and after workers struggled to stay afloat for so long, union workers ended up approving a contract that pretty much gave Exxon everything that it was demanding.

What does that mean for the steelworkers union in Beaumont and for that matter? And more broadly for labor in Texas?

I think it really puts into question the ability of labor unions, especially in refineries that have been around for a long time, to be able to counter the growing power of these refinery owners and to combat internal dissent, growing anti-union sentiment that we've seen with these decertification campaigns.

This at a time when it seems like labor has been making gains in other areas. We've been talking about what's happening with Amazon in New York. We've been seeing some baristas organizing as well as some other lower paid workers and in industries that are not conventionally thought of as labor strongholds. What do you make of those two trends?

It's interesting. We saw so much national attention to these active organizing campaigns and attempts to form new unions in industries and companies that previously haven't had unions. And the flip side in Texas, on the Gulf Coast, we're seeing unions and refineries that have been unionized, going back to World War II increasingly – under siege. So it's kind of a flip side that that I think it's kind of flown under the radar so far.