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Locked-out Exxon workers face pivotal vote on union representation

Exxon Mobil is launching multibillion-dollar projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while claiming it cannot stay competitive if it agrees to the contract demands of a group of refinery workers.

(CN) — With Exxon's lockout of around 650 employees from its Beaumont, Texas, complex now in its seventh month, the workers are facing a critical vote on whether to decertify their representation by the United Steelworkers union to clear the way for them to return to their jobs.

Exxon Mobil employs more than 2,000 people at its Beaumont facilities, which include a refinery that produces 2.8 billion gallons of gasoline per year, a lubricant blending and packaging plant, a chemical plant and a polyethylene plant.

The oil giant locked out more than 600 refinery and lubricant blending plant employees on May 1 after it reached an impasse in labor contract negotiations with USW Local 13-243 and the workers threatened to strike.

The dispute involves worker seniority rights as Exxon is expanding its Beaumont refinery, building a new unit to process light crude oil from the Permian Basin in West Texas that it says will go online next year and increase the site’s refining capacity by 250,000 barrels per day.

Exxon has agreed to USW’s demand to add seniority protections in the contract so workers who move from the refinery to the blending and packaging plant, or vice-versa, would retain their seniority, which determines which workers get first dibs on preferred vacation dates and which will keep their jobs in the event of layoffs.

But the workers rejected Exxon’s latest six-year contract offer on Oct. 20 after the company refused to budge from its insistence on having the right to move workers to any position at any time regardless of seniority and eliminating job bidding, wherein workers bid for open positions and are awarded them based on seniority.

A group of locked-out workers unhappy with USW’s negotiations are attempting to break the impasse.

They gathered enough signatures for a decertification vote administered by the National Labor Relations Board. On Nov. 12, the board mailed ballots to the homes of USW-represented employees and gave them until Dec. 22 to return them.

If a majority vote to decertify, USW will no longer represent any of Exxon’s Beaumont workers. Should they do so, the company says it will welcome back every employee.

Exxon is aggressively lobbying for decertification, claiming in frequent online updates on the lockout that its Beaumont employees at nonunion represented sites—its chemical and polyethylene plants—make 5 to 7% more than its USW-represented Beaumont workers, get larger lump sum pension payments when they retire and are disciplined less often and less severely than their unionized peers, despite the fact union members can challenge any disciplinary action taken against them by Exxon through their USW representatives.

Dr. John McCollough, an associate economics professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, said these claims from Exxon sound like propaganda to persuade the workers to cut ties with USW.

“How is it that Exxon pays the nonunion workforce more than the union workforce? Unless those plants are in more profitable lines of business,” he said in a phone interview.

The locked-out workers claim Exxon is putting people who live near its Beaumont operations at risk of plant explosions and fires by employing unqualified, temporary workers as their replacements. But Exxon says it is operating safely as supervisors who are long-time employees are overseeing the refinery and lubricants plant.

In the meantime, Exxon says, its latest contract offer, made Nov. 1, is still on the table and negotiations have not been officially paused pending the union decertification vote.

But it does not sound optimistic a deal will be reached anytime soon.

“The last meeting with the union was October 27. There are no future meetings currently scheduled. The union still has not come close to meeting any of the company’s objectives that have been discussed at length since January. We will continue to operate our facility safely and reliably with our fully trained staff,” the company said in a statement to Courthouse News.

The locked-out union members did not respond to emailed questions or phone messages by press time. But they have questioned Exxon’s position that accepting the union’s contract offer would undercut its ability to remain competitive.

“They talk about competitiveness. It has nothing to do with competitiveness. They’re going after safety, job security, seniority,” Darrell Kyle, president of USW Local 13-243, said in a USW-produced video about the lockout.

“It’s all about money and power for these people. It ain’t about doing the right thing for their employees and the communities they are around,” he added.

Talks have come to a standstill as Exxon is returning to profitability in a big way this year, thanks to an upswing in oil prices. West Texas Intermediate crude was trading at around $76 Friday, up from $42 a year ago.

Exxon made a profit of $6.8 billion in the three months ending Sept. 30. It lost $680 million during the same period in 2020 amid worldwide headwinds from economy-stifling Covid-19 lockdowns.

And its stock price stood at $60.77 Friday, a more than 60% increase from a year ago.

With heads of state gathered in Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, Exxon CEO Darren Woods announced Nov. 9 the company plans to invest $15 billion over the next six years on initiatives to lower greenhouse gas emissions, including in a carbon-capture hub it projects could take in 50 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030 and 100 million tons annually by 2040.

Exxon is partnering on the endeavor with 10 other oil and chemical companies, Chevron and Dow among them.

In an apparent first step for the $100 billion project, which the participants say will need economic support from the federal government to come to fruition, it placed the only bids this week on 94 offshore drilling leases in shallow waters near the Texas coastline, Bloomberg reported.

For their hub, Exxon and its partners are expected to bury carbon emissions from Houston-area chemical plants and refineries beneath the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico leases.

Back in Beaumont, McCollough, the Lamar University economics professor, said he hopes the ousted workers and Exxon can come to an agreement and end the contract dispute.

“It seems to me it’s kind of over a very stupid point,” he said. “The union does not want to lose their seniority rights for jobs and positions. And then Exxon says, ‘No. Because of that we’re just going to lock them out of the plant.’ From what I understand that’s the big contention.”

“So it just doesn’t make sense to me,” he continued. “They [Exxon] think they can be that much more productive by not giving workers with seniority the rights to any kind of jobs that come along. It seems like they’re nitpicking.”

At the same time, McCollough said, he’s encouraged Exxon is addressing the warming climate. “We’ve got to deal and work on this issue first and then worry about seniority jobs at a local plant … They’re investing $15 billion in this. So they’re placing a high priority in it, it seems to me. But let’s just hope they follow through with it.”

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