Photo: Locked out Beaumont Exxon Mobil worker. Credit: United Steel Workers
About 600 workers at an Exxon Mobil refinery in the east Texas city of Beaumont are now facing the ninth month of a company lockout.
Both sides are waiting on a decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on whether the lockout constitutes an unfair labor practice. United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13-243, comprised of workers at the plant, is claiming that Exxon is using the lockout as an attempt to get rid of the union altogether and roll back worker protections.
Workers are suffering because of the company’s lockout, but remain determined to stand up for their rights and their union. Workers have voted in large majorities to turn down Exxon’s contract proposals that would give the company the right to fire any worker for any reason.
How this started: history of the lockout
The lockout started at the end of April 2021. The existing union contract had expired in February 2021, and the company’s new contract proposal was met with fierce resistance from the workers. If ratified, it would have instituted a far-ranging set of cuts to long-established workers’ rights. According to the USW Local 13-243 president Darrell W. Kyle, Exxon began refusing to honor protections for senior workers that had been in place for decades. Exxon also insisted upon the right to fire union employees for any reason.
When negotiations reached an impasse, Exxon initiated the lockout. This cut off the livelihood and income for hundreds of USW workers.
Since the lockout, 55 bargaining sessions have taken place between Exxon and the union. The company has remained intransigent, while the union cannot accept managements’ attempt to gut the three basic protections of “safety, seniority, and security.” Physical safety at the workplace, rights of seniority for veteran workers, and job security are the three main protections the union is fighting for. Union members have overwhelmingly voted down Exxon’s anti-worker proposals from the negotiations.
Exxon has used the moment to aggressively lobby for a decertification vote of the union, which would effectively de-unionize the workers and remove all union protections they have. Exxon is claiming that they “will end the lockout when the Company and the Union reach a signed, ratified agreement or employees have removed the Union through decertification or withdrawal of recognition.”
If Exxon gets their way either through their preferred contract or through decertification of the union, then workers at the refinery will return to more dangerous workplaces with no job protections. The decertification vote took place in November and December, but the ballots were impounded by the NLRB on Dec. 29.
Steelworkers and supporters have provided support for a food pantry for locked out workers, but conditions remain hard.
“You think this company loves you and cares about your family — you are wrong,” said Jesse Herin of the Workman’s Committee. “It is our job to hold them accountable, every safety system, every scenario, everything we do, we need to hold that company accountable.”
Workers and families recognize the sacrifice that previous generations made to gain the right to a union and are willing to fight to protect that legacy.
“Everything’s been written in blood,” remarked local USW member Jonnie Vaught on the struggle for union recognition. “It wasn’t my grandfather’s or my great grandfather’s, but somebody’s grandparents fought to have unions. You gotta stand up and fight sooner or later.”
Exxon takes public money to impose private suffering
Like other massive companies, Exxon is claiming that its low profit margins mean that they need to cut corners and wages to remain “competitive.”
Exxon made $23 billion in income in 2021, employing just over 70,000 workers. They could have paid every single worker in the company an additional $300,000 in 2021 and still turned a profit.
While they are squeezing profits out of workers at one end of their business model, they are receiving massive amounts of free public money on the other. The UK has paid Exxon $360 million since the beginning of the Paris climate accords. An overview of U.S. subsidies reveals that Exxon received 119 subsidies from state and local governments worth a total of $1 billion, plus an additional $3.8 billion in “federal loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance.”
Some of these subsidies are related to environmental “incentives” that often amount to nothing more than handouts to large fossil fuel extractors. Union workers are pointing to the company’s proposed $100 billion carbon capture “innovation zone” in nearby Houston as a point of struggle, demanding that Houston not give over massive city funding to a company that betrays and abandons its workers. After all, if Exxon cannot be trusted to support its own workers in their time of need, how can it be trusted to save the planet?
Exxon is harming the workers and the community on several fronts and profiting at every step. First, they are taking public funds that could have been used for schools, roads, housing, healthcare, and more, even though they are turning a profit and do not need this money. Second, by continuing to fund fossil fuels, they are contributing to climate change and environmental destruction that hurt the same working-class communities whose labor provides them with their profits. Hurricane Harvey devastated Beaumont along with many cities along the Gulf Coast, and Beaumont is part of a larger industrial region where rates of cancer are alarmingly higher than the rest of the country. Third, Exxon is harming workers by attempting to roll back the union protections that they fought for: “safety, seniority, security,” as the local union has phrased it, and threatening a decertification campaign.
Fossil fuel companies try to deflect from the environmental harm they are causing — and their assault on labor rights — with divide-and-conquer tactics. They try to pit fossil fuel workers against environmentalists by falsely claiming that renewable energy will destroy union jobs and that union energy workers don’t care about the environment. All of this is false, and of course Exxon does not care about the well-being of unions or the environment.
It will be up to workers — not fossil fuel executives or the capitalist politicians they buy off — to fight for the changes they want to see in their workplaces. A better future is possible, strong unions are a way to fight for that future, and ultimately we will need a new system — a socialist system — to end the exploitation and destruction of workers and the Earth.