Nothing Left Unsaid
Posted: Monday, February 16, 2015 12:00 am
USW strike is about worker safety By SUSAN CRISS galvestondailynews.com
More than 5,000 United Steelworkersunion members are striking at refineries across the nation. Several hundred of them are on strike here in Texas City.
One of the biggest deal-breakers in the negotiations was the refusal of the refineries to include contract language protecting the right to a safe work environment. The Steelworkers want the contractual right to stop working in an unsafe workplace. The union wants to limit overtime hours to combat the safety challenges caused by worker fatigue.
These companies invest in chamber of commerce activities and advertising dollars to prove their support of their neighboring communities. They send representatives to chamber and charity events to show they care. Talent, resources and dollars are spent promoting their corporate good will and good citizen images.
Yet they refuse to spend money maintaining refinery machinery in decent enough condition to prevent their workers from being killed. The refineries refuse to consider these demands.
Why would a company refuse to guarantee workers the right to a safe workplace? Because the lives and safety of their workers do not matter enough to cut into profits. Because the people that do the work generating those profits do not matter.
Why are the union members not backing down? Overtime dollars pay a lot of bills and then some. Striking means bills go unpaid. Why not take the money and take their chances?
Because they cannot forget the cost of working in dangerous conditions.
In Anacortes, Washington, seven workers were killed in a plant explosion five years ago and six more in an explosion in 1998. Two workers died in a refinery explosion in Beaumont in 2103. Other deaths occurred in fires, explosions, and toxic releases at plants across the country. The causes can be traced to dangerous workplace conditions and worker fatigue.
Here in Texas City on March 23, 2005 the BP plant exploded in one of the worst refinery accidents in United States history. Fifteen workers died and more than 180 were injured. Some of the injured were burned beyond recognition.
I know because I presided as trial judge over all 4,016 legal claims arising from that explosion. I had to meet the families of those killed who had surviving children and some of those burned and one who had been comatose. I remember one man’s skin was burned so badly that you could not discern his original skin color or race. I saw court staff fight back tears listening to the stories of the survivors and the surviving family members.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board issued findings of the causes of the Texas City BP catastrophe. BP commissioned former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to study the explosion. Both released reports of their findings in 2007. Both revealed a culture of complacency toward worker safety at that refinery contributed to the disaster. Worker fatigue resulting from excessive overtime hours was another problem cited.
Why are the USW members on strike? Because their workers do matter.
Susan Criss, a former district court judge and attorney, and Neil Baron, an attorney and former League City Councilman, are writing columns from a progressive perspective.