Oil workers in Texas, California, Kentucky and Washington state are striking. One of the main issues, according to one news report on the oil workers’ strike, is safety. According to the vice president of the United Steel Workers’ Union USW), which represents oil and gas workers in the four states, the work stoppage is about:
… onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it.
In addition to seeking safety improvements for workers, the union notes that safety problems also affect the general public, citing recent explosions and leaks that have endangered the communities around oil and gas installations.
This is the first nation-wide strike of oil and gas workers since 1980. But unlike past labor actions, this strike is more about safety. Oil and gas workers have benefitted from the improving economy; their wages have improved since the economic downturn of 2008. Other labor groups have not been as fortunate and are experiencing stagnant incomes.
The oil and gas workers, however, are primarily focused on workplace safety. Issues include:
- Inadequate staffing
- Scheduling that causes dangerous levels of exhaustion among workers
- Using contract workers for maintenance
Outside observers suggest that the reason the union is focused more on safety in the workplace than on wages is that the improving economy means that jobs are secure and wages stable. This, according to experts, is the time to address safety issues.
The oil companies are strenuously resisting efforts by the union to give workers a role in staffing level decisions. The oil companies say that staffing is exclusively an employer prerogative. This resistance, according to observers quoted in aWashington Post blog, is the primary reason for the strike.
Whether they will succeed is unknown. Labor actions have become rare in recent years, and union membership is down significantly. The USW has a strike fund, but what happens when it is exhausted?