Workers on strike at 9 oil refineries producing 10% of US fuel (PHOTOS)

Workers from the United Steelworkers (USW) union walk a picket line outside the Shell Oil Deer Park Refinery in Deer Park, Texas February 1, 2015.(Reuters / Richard Carson )
Workers at nine US oil refineries and chemical plants across four states, producing some 10 percent of the country’s fuel, went on strike after their union announced that negotiations on their salaries and safety concerns failed.

The mass walkout of refinery workers – the first since 1980 – took place on Sunday, after the United Steelworkers union (USW) rejected the fifth offer by the industry’s main negotiator, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which in turn halted talks.

“Shell refused to provide us with a counter-offer and left the bargaining table," USW International President Leo Gerard said. "We had no choice but to give notice of a work stoppage.”

The negotiating parties have been seeking since January 21 to secure a successor to a three-year collective-bargaining agreement that expired this weekend, Bloomberg Business reported.

“We told Shell that we were willing to continue bargaining for a fair agreement that would benefit the workers and the industry, but they just refused to return to the table,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Program.

Refinery employees complain of working overtime with unsafe staffing levels and under dangerous work environments. The union has cited daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks, and explosions that threaten local communities.

“The oil companies do not want to work with us to improve the workplace and safety at oil refineries and facilities,” said USW International Vice President of Administration Tom Conway. “This industry is the richest in the world and can afford to make the changes we offered in bargaining.”

While strikes continue at nine facilities, the remaining USW refineries are operating under a rolling 24-hour contract extension.

The USW represents 65 refineries that produce approximately 64 percent of the oil in the US, and over 230 oil terminals, pipelines, and petrochemical facilities in the United States. It is also the largest private sector union in North America, representing 850,000 people working in a spectrum of sectors including metals, mining, energy, and healthcare.