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United Steelworkers vs Shell: Is the end in sight?

Precise weigh in on the recent negotiations between the USW and Shell.

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If all goes to plan, workers at US oil refineries could be walking through the gates today for the first time in just over six weeks. Members of the United Steelworkers Union have been striking since February 1st after it failed for the fifth time to reach agreement on a three year contract with major oil companies.

The USW says following talks with Shell, the lead negotiator for the oil industry, it has managed to secure many of its demands in a four year deal including enhanced safety measures. It always argued that this was what the walkout primarily wanted to achieve, citing the deaths of 27 workers since 2010 – more than five a year – at refineries.

The union’s International President Leo W Gerard paid tribute to his members saying, “There was no way we would have won vast improvement in safety and staffing without … the solidarity exhibited”.

The safety details include an immediate review of staff and workload assessments at each facility with input from union safety personnel. It also calls for maintaining existing cost sharing ratios for healthcare plans and a yearly wage increase for workers. At the start of the strike, USW’s International VP Tom Conway argued that the “industry is the richest in the world and can afford to make the changes we offered in bargaining.” However seven offers were rejected prior to this agreement which all included wage hikes.

The union will also work with refinery owners to develop hiring plans that complement recruitment and training programs.

But there is a sticking point. The deal must be reviewed at local level by union members at plants. They are to negotiate specific local issues and draft a return-to-work agreement before the strike – the first nationwide walkout since 1980 – comes to an end. If that doesn’t happen, strikes could continue.

Four refineries out of the original 15 look set to start work quickly. These are all owned or co-owned by Shell. Other refineries are still working through the national deal, unable to agree on local issues.

However as the union has only been able to pay striking workers $100 a week it will become more difficult for workers to hold their ground. One local union spokesman Brent Petit said, “Now is when the reality starts setting in, when bills need to be paid.”