Refinery workers with the United Steelworkers have now been on strike since February 1. The main issue in the strike is workplace safety. Let’s take a refresher on the terrible working conditions of the refinery industry by looking at the daughter of a man killed on the job:
Her father was killed by burns sustained in an accident at the then-British Petroleum Texas City refinery in September 2004. Gonzalez lived in the hospital for weeks after the accident and for a long time, Rodriguez and her two sisters and their mother hoped that Gonzalez would pull through. But eventually his body began to fail and his organs started shutting down. The family was together with him at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston when they turned off all the machines.
After that, Rodriguez couldn’t even stand to talk about what had happened to her father, but she started researching the industry that employed him for most of his adult life. Only then did she begin to understand what it was really like behind the refinery fence. While he never said a word in front of his daughters about the dangers and the near-misses that were a part of life at the Texas City refinery, Gonzalez would tell his wife about the burns and how careful workers had to be at the refinery, her mother later told her. “He kept that from us because he didn’t want us to worry. If we had known we would have worried all the time,” Rodriguez says now.
An accountant by trade, Rodriguez coped with her grief through research. She learned everything there was to know about how refineries worked and who the companies were answerable to if something went wrong. Rodriguez comforted herself with the thought that at least safety would improve at the refinery. Even in the dangerous world of oil refineries, deaths make the national news and trigger investigations led by USW, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board. Professionals would look at the accident that killed her father, figure out the cause and make sure it wouldn’t happen again, she told herself.
But less than six months later, on March 23, 2005, there was a bigger explosion at the Texas City refinery. BP lawyers had been pushing back on a settlement agreement with the family and contesting the OSHA fines, but the day of the explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 100, they stopped fighting and paid.
Preventing these sorts of incidents is central to this strike. Yet unions continue to be broadly painted as only about wages. That’s not true at all. They are about dignity and representation on the job. That is often represented by money but it is often not the primary issue. Sometimes it is about staying alive.