Economy

Amid lockout, Exxon workers spend Labor Day on strike

Locked out United Steel Workers Union members, including (from left) Adam Benavides and Carlos Soto, take their shifts picketing outside Beaumont’s ExxonMobil plant on Labor Day.
source Kim Brent/The Enterprise

Instead of cooking out and celebrating the Labor Day holiday with his family at home, Carlos Soto spent most of Monday afternoon at the main gate of ExxonMobil’s Beaumont complex, picketing with his “work family.”

Soto is one of around 620 Exxon workers currently entrenched in what’s become a six-month lockout with the refiner over a new contract. He’s one of the “newbies,” having only worked at the complex for two years.

However, Soto and the group of coworkers that showed up Monday wanted to be on the picket line specifically for Labor Day, supporting each other and advocating for a solution to the stare down with their employer.

“Labor Day is usually a day when a lot of people take a rest with their family, but our goal is to be out here and make a difference,” Soto said. “We just want Exxon to come to the bargaining table. Let us get back to work and do what we do best.”

The lockout doesn’t seem to have a definite stop in sight, with negotiations stalling several times times over the six-month span. The company and Union representatives had multiple meetings in August, but are apparently still divided on the terms of a new contract.

After the latest meeting on Aug. 31, ExxonMobil said the Union presented its bargaining representatives with another comprehensive plan, but it was rejected.

“Over one hundred twenty days have passed since the initiation of the lockout, and the Union has not presented an offer that came close to meeting the Company’s objectives,” representatives for ExxonMobil wrote in an update. “Nonetheless, it remains the sincere hope of each and every member of Management that the USW Local 13-243 Bargaining Committee will accept our offer and hold a membership vote.”

The next negotiation meeting has been set for a week from now, on Sept. 14.

The ExxonMobil Beaumont lockout has been a focus for the USW international organization and other labor organizations, showing up in near constant social media blasts, advocacy letters to members and demonstrations.

A few days before Labor Day, AFL-CIO President Elizabeth Shuler penned a letter to ExxonMobil’s board and chairman, calling for an end to the lockout.

“I urge the Board of Directors to review the safety risks of continuing to operate the Beaumont complex with temporary replacement workers during the lockout,” Shuler wrote. “Needless to say, the safe operation of the Beaumont complex is of great importance to ExxonMobil shareholders as well as the community that it operates in.”

Zachary Simon, a Louisiana native who’s worked at the complex for eight years, expressed similar safety concerns. He said he has always spent past Labor Days at the complex. The only difference is he’s usually working and not picketing.

“(The contractors) obviously don’t have the experience we do when it comes to these things,” Simon said as he stood at the gate Monday. “We’ve been through floods, hurricanes, freezes and coronavirus.”

But, as the company told employees in an informational update last week, it doesn’t plan to return its regular employees to their positions until a contract is ratified.

Exxon started a third training program on Aug. 23 to prepare contractors the company has been using to fill operator roles since the lockout began.

Soto and Simon were joined at the main gate on Monday by coworkers Adam Benavides and Devin Henigan, each of whom have worked at the complex for eight years. Workers stand at the line in shifts that are scheduled in advance to make sure there’s a constant presence at the complex.

While out of work, employees said the Union has helped provide groceries and pay bills as the lockout continues. Workers said Monday they’re willing to wait as long as it takes for a fair negotiation, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

“We’ve done everything we’re supposed to do on our end, now all we’re asking from Exxon is to bargain fairly and keep their end,” Simon said.

Written by Matt Faye

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