NWI: USW Local 7-1 sells T-shirts to support strike fund

Originally published at NWI on March 4, 2015 by Joseph S. Pete.

USW Local 7-1 sells T-shirts to support strike fund

Keith Benman, The Times

USW members stand on the picket line in February at BP Whiting refinery at 129th Avenue and Indianapolis Boulevard during the first day of a strike. The USW is now selling T-shirts online to support the strike fund, while BP is training additional replacement workers and saying striking workers are welcome to come back. 

March 04, 2015 3:15 pm  •  Joseph S. Pete [email protected], (219) 933-3316

WHITING | Region residents can now show their support for striking workers at the BP Whiting Refinery in a highly visible way — on their torso.

United Steelworkers Local 7-1 is selling T-shirts online to raise money for its strike fund. About 1,100 USW-represented oil workers have been striking since Feb. 8 over issues that include staffing, fatigue and safety at a refinery that had an explosion and a spill into Lake Michigan last year.

BP says safety is its top priority, that oil workers are less likely than other manufacturing workers to get injured on the job, and that it has been negotiating for a new three-year contract in good faith since December. USW Local 7-1 President Dave Danko said the union has been concerned about long hours, rampant overtime and a growing use of contractors to do routine maintenance that well-trained USW members have always done.

“Leaks and explosions are far too common,” Danko said. “It’s part of day-to-day business because they put profits ahead of the price of doing business safely time and time again. The management is desensitized to taking risks.”

BP said in a statement Tuesday it has begun to train additional replacement workers to supplement the existing replacement workforce that has been filling in during the strike. The company also said it has an open gate policy that would allow any striking USW member to return to their job even during the strike.

Danko said last week the union has shown great solidarity about not breaking the picket line because what they’re fighting for is so important.

“What helps us survive the financial hardship is greater concern for the safety of everybody inside the fence line and the community outside,” Danko said.

USW and Shell, which represents oil companies nationally, had a teleconference Wednesday in an effort to reach an agreement that would end the national strike. More than 6,500 oil workers nationwide have been picketing.

“We discussed at length our continuing concerns regarding safety and a process whereby the USW members could be assured of manageable hours of overtime and adequate staffing levels to ensure safe conditions for our members, the operations and the surrounding communities,” USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock said. “We further discussed our facility maintenance concerns and the assignment of daily maintenance work to the bargaining unit and offered specific proposals on both those issues.”

National bargaining meetings are scheduled next Monday in Houston.

Both sides have dug in for the long haul, after the last national strike in 1980 ran on for three months.

The strike fund established by USW Local 7-1 does not replace workers’ salaries, but it can help them pay their mortgage and utility bills. The USW has been prepared for a potentially long strike, since BP had been unwilling to even discuss staffing levels when workers were putting in 12-hour shifts for days on end, as well as working as much overtime as they were willing to take on, Danko said.

To keep money flowing into its coffers, USW Local 7-1 is selling gray T-shirts that say “I support USW Local 7-1 Oilworkers” on the front. On the back they read: “The Safety and Environment of the Community Matters!” and “Our Experience Matters.”

Those statements on the back are layered over a photo of one of the flare-ups that occurred on the watch of replacement workers last week. Since the union local went on strike, the Midwest’s largest refinery has had repeated incidents, including a malfunction that shut down its second-largest crude distillation unit and dramatic flare-ups that were photographed and posted online.

As of early Wednesday afternoon, the union had raised more than $1,300 by selling the unisex cotton T-shirts for $25 each, according to union officials.

Local businesses such as Funflatables and White Rhino have been donating to the striking oil workers, who welcome anyone to drop by their union hall with a donation. Retired steelworkers have come over and chipped in whatever they could afford, sometimes $5 or $10. Whiting Knights of Columbus No. 1696 is planning “Region Rockers Relief Fest 2015,” a charity concert Saturday to benefit United Steelworkers’ families.

The T-shirts are available online at https://www.booster.com/usw7-1.