LIMA — From the beginning, talks were not going well.
“After three and a half weeks, the only thing we got agreement to was two additional bulletin boards,” said Mike Edelbrock, president of United Steel Workers Local 624.
That was in March, at the beginning of negotiations between the union and Husky Energy Inc., owners of Husky Lima Refinery.
Now, today, the day before Labor Day, is the 100th day of a strike that began May 25. While negotiations were speedy and ongoing in the days and hours before the union went on strike, they have slowed to a drip in recent months. The more talks stall, the more the rhetoric heats up, especially in the past two weeks, when a glimmer of hope about a settlement turned into allegations of lying. One hundred days is a long time to be on strike, especially in these times when contract negotiations rarely lead to strikes at all. Even the 1,000 employees with the local United Steel Workers union in Findlay, locked out by Cooper Tire, returned to work after 90 days. Husky and the union seem farther apart now than ever.
Good faith, bad faith bargaining
The contract between Husky and Local 624 expired April 15. A union vote authorizing a strike was overwhelming, Edelbrock said, with only six no votes. The last proposal from Husky was rejected by a 5-1 margin. Then, Husky asked for a 24-hour rolling extension of the old contract. That continued for 39 days, Edelbrock said, as the union and mediators became more frustrated with Husky’s “inability to come across with any issues. ” Finally the union believed it needed to put pressure on, pulled the extension and gave a strike notice. The two sides met all day and night, but at 9:37 a.m. May 25, Husky told employees to leave the facility.
“The package we had was detrimental to members; we were giving away the farm. I was nauseated, we were giving away so many concessions,” Edelbrock said. “All we wanted were the trick trades and some personal days off instead of sick time, and a maintenance issue — double time for holidays, which is what they pay contractors — and we couldn’t get it done.”
Edelbrock said Husky is not interested in bargaining; the company wants the agreement it wants, and nothing else. The union has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges and said Husky has bad-faith bargained, with attitudes from Plant Manager Roy Warnock and the influence of Chinese ownership.
“I don’t think they ever intended, sure as hell didn’t look like it, to an agreement,” Edelbrock said. “We’re the only local in the country on strike and it seems to be more of a bullying of this plant manager and influences the Chinese owners, not to get anything agreed to, because we’ve reduced our items. We’re down to eight or nine items. It seems ridiculous that we couldn’t get this fixed in three hours rather than 100 days and counting.”
Husky chose to not directly respond to Edelbrock’s comments about the ownership and management. Company spokesman Adam Sparkes said the company didn’t want a strike and worked hard to avoid one. Sparkes also emphasized the company has bargained in good faith.
“We made several offers, which included wage adjustments as per the national pattern that would see the average employee earn $37 per hour. Unfortunately the union took our employees on strike. We have always negotiated in good faith and will continue to do so,” Sparkes said.
Edelbrock has said previously that the company wants to punish the union and blames the union for the strike, taking no responsibility for its actions contributing the need for a strike. The international agreement, the piece of a contract that the International United Steel Workers bargains with all oil companies in the United States, has also long been a thorny issue between the two sides.
Edelbrock contends that Husky continues to try to bargain issues in the international contract, which the local is not authorized to do. Husky has also not been truthful in its dealings with the community in regard to the international agreement, Edelbrock said. The date of when the contract becomes effective is a key piece of the international agreement, and Husky has never agreed to it, Edelbrock said.
“They’ve lied to you guys, they’ve lied to us, they’ve lied to corporate, that they’ve met or exceeded the international policy, which they never have. They run that story; they run their propaganda. I’m not optimistic about Tuesday (the next bargaining session),” Edelbrock said. “My biggest concern is their arrogance with the international, if they put something in there that’s detrimental. As a local, we’ve already given authorization to international to keep us out on strike if (Husky doesn’t) meet the pattern. Why does Husky believe they don’t have to meet the pattern that every other oil company in the country has?”
Husky officials said they want to see employees back to work.
“We are disappointed these negotiations have taken so long, but we remain committed to reaching a deal that fairly compensates our employees and enhances the long-term viability of the refinery. We want to see our employees back at work as soon as possible and we will stay at the negotiating table for as long as it takes to resolve these issues. Everyone at Husky wants this resolved and our full team back at work,” Sparkes said.
“Breaking the union”
While 240 workers went on strike, some of those were never in the union, but represented by the contract. In the weeks following the strike, 18 of 240, including nonunion members and members who resigned from the union, crossed the picket line and returned to work. Still others have simply quit, after finding work elsewhere. Companies, especially out-of-state refineries, are courting the Husky employees, who have special skills that can’t be taught in a classroom, and more could be leaving.
Chatter abounds in town and across social media questioning the strength of the union, and whether members trust Edelbrock. Talks often devolve into a “he-said, she-said” tone, because of the limited number of people involved in bargaining sessions. A “rants” section on Craigslist is filled with anonymous, ugly back-and-forth about the strike, union and company. Early on, a few workers who crossed the picket line found themselves victims of vandalism of their homes and vehicles.
Edelbrock said Local 624 is strong and holding together. The number of those crossing the picket line hasn’t changed in weeks, although more and more people are finding other work, Edelbrock said, adding that he understands why a worker would take another job. He’s asked all the time if he believes Husky is trying to “break” the union.
“I’ve told the membership, the only people who break the union are the members. The company can’t go in and say the union is broke. Our members have to say we’re done,” Edelbrock said.
Long-time Lima residents will remember long and violent strikes in the city’s past, including a 156-day strike at Westinghouse that lasted from September 1955 to March 1956. Tough strikes and labor-management relations are surely part of the city’s history, but they are rare in these times. With this strike going on 100 days and counting, the union and company will have multiple problems once they do have a contract and workers return. Relationships between union leadership and workers with management is raw and not trusting. Also, members and “scabs,” as Edelbrock calls them, will be working side by side again.
For its part, Husky said the company and union worked on a safe, professional handover of the plant when the strike happened. The company expects the same behavior in the future.
“Our employees worked with us on a handover that maintained safe and efficient operations. When they come back – hopefully soon – we will again work together so there is a safe and successful return to work,” Sparkes said.
Edelbrock said a long time will pass before the union has a trusting relationship with the company again. He has instructed his members to ignore as best they can those who crossed the picket line. “I don’t want anyone to raise a fuss with them. They didn’t care about us or our families when they crossed. They don’t exist to us, because we didn’t exist to them,” he said.
The union president said he talked to some of the old-timers about a strike at the refinery in 1978 about what to expect.
“There’ll be damage in the plant, to relationships, to friendships, for years. It will take forever to repair that,” Edelbrock said.
Up the road in Findlay, Cooper Tire locked out its United Steel Workers union in the middle of negotiations. Employees are back to work, but Local 207L President Rod Nelson said relationships remain raw. The Findlay group has offered support to the Lima local and gave some tips about how to sustain a long-term work stoppage, and . The sticking points between Local 207L and Cooper were economic; at the refinery, that has not been the case.
While Local 207L didn’t achieve its goals, it did keep the company from “re-rating jobs at a lower (pay) rate,” Nelson said.
“Cooper has been a part of my family. When they locked the doors, it was hard to accept, because they were rejecting our services, but they’re also a big part of our lives. It was like a mother turning her back on us. It was tough. They said at the contract table our concerns were not as great as their concerns,” Nelson said. “I believe we’re always going to harbor feelings of betrayal from our company, but we have to move forward. There’s no need to look backward.”
Nelson, also a long-time union man, has never dealt with employees crossing a picket line. He gave that some thought, returning to work in that situation.
“Oh, yeah,” Nelson said. “That would be something.”