Oil giant ExxonMobil initiated a lockout of more than 650 workers at its Beaumont, Texas refinery and blending and packaging plant on Saturday morning after negotiations broke down between the company and the United Steelworkers (USW) union. USW officials agreed to the “orderly transfer” of the workers off of ExxonMobil’s property and have not called an official strike.
USW Local 13-243 and ExxonMobil met Friday night and Saturday morning, attempting to come to an agreement before the lockout began. By 1 p.m. Saturday, union representatives said more than 200 workers on their regular shift had been escorted out of the facility, two at a time. Some workers reported they had been forced to leave the property as early as the night before.
The USW and ExxonMobil began bargaining a new contract on January 11. The company demanded workers accept a proposal which included major changes to workers’ safety, job security, and seniority rights. On April 23, ExxonMobil announced its intention to lock workers out on May 1 if they did not agree to the givebacks. The USW asked for the current contract to be extended by a year, but ExxonMobil said it would not do so and demanded that the USW bring its contract proposal to a vote. The USW, knowing that workers would overwhelmingly reject another concessionary contract, opted instead to let the company lock out its members.
Workers gathered and formed a picket line Saturday morning, carrying signs denouncing ExxonMobil’s actions. Health and safety are major concerns for workers at the plant and a major reason an agreement has not been reached. ExxonMobil claimed health and safety demands put forward by workers “would significantly increase costs” and limit its ability to remain competitive.
One of the most common causes of accidents as reported by workers is understaffing. Jobs in the oil industry are physically demanding and workers normally see 12-hour shifts plus overtime. Hazardous materials and heavy machinery create an environment with a high potential for workplace injury. More than 1,500 oil rig workers died on the job between 2008 and 2017.
There is also a looming mental health crisis among male workers in the industry, who die from suicide at a higher rate than workers in any other sector. Researchers have drawn a connection between the collapse of oil prices and suicide rates. The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Austin, Texas estimated deaths of despair among oil and gas workers would rise by as much as 20 percent, due to consequences of the pandemic.