Refinery strike locks out youth baseball

Youth baseball players have been locked out of their regular playing fields due to a labor dispute at the Tesoro oil refinery in Martinez.

Pattie Behmlander, president of the Concord-based Junior Optimist Baseball League, said that roughly 600 players on 49 teams have been forced to share just three fields when they normally play on 18, because 15 of those fields are located on property owned by the Tesoro refinery that is closed due to a strike.

Behmlander said forcing the teams to share space is a “big safety issue.” The teams are in their practice season and would normally start their regular season on March 21, she said. The refinery has been shut down and the fields closed since workers began a strike following the expiration of their contract on Feb. 1.

The Tesoro facility in Martinez was undergoing a routine shutdown of its refining operations to perform maintenance work at the time the strike started and management made the decision to keep the refining operations idle until it strike ends, Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche said.

Citing safety concerns, Deutsche said the 15 playing fields would be closed until the strike is over:

“It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines. … We just don’t want to expose them to any negative interactions.”

A local United Steelworkers spokesman said there are no picketers at the gate that leads to the fields. The picketers are staged outside the main gates to the facility and are not blocking the playing fields, said USW Local 5 member Tracy Scott:

“We’re ready to sit down with (the baseball league) at any time in any place to make sure their baseball players have a successful season.”

Scott added the decision to lock the fields is “solely that of the company’s.” Behmlander said the union has already reached out to the league, but only the company can make the decision to open the fields. At the national level, Scott said the USW is in talks with Shell, which has represented oil refinery operators in national collective bargaining negotiations since 1997.

In a statement released today, Shell representatives said the company has made seven offers to the USW over the past month. Scott said the main sticking points relate to worker fatigue, the use of contract laborers, healthcare and a “no retrogression” clause.

The “no retrogression” clause cements existing gains made by the union since 1966, including agreements on job security, layoff notice, health and safety issues and pensions, among others, Scott said. Scott said the “no retrogression” clause is currently in the workers’ contract and was not included in the new contract.

Shell has not responded to the union’s request to include the clause in their contract, Scott said. In a statement posted on Shell’s website, the company did not comment on whether or not they were willing to include it.

Scott also said temporary contract workers are not trained to the same level as union workers, which results in work having to be redone and creates unsafe working conditions, since the workers are not as familiar with the operations and equipment as regular employees.

Tesoro Executive Vice President of Operations Keith Casey characterized the push to replace contract laborers with union employees as a way to increase the number of union workers at the facilities:

“We select contractors who have the skills and shared values toward our objective of an incident-free workplace. … It is my opinion that the USW International demands about contractors are about increasing USW dues-paying members.”

Although the strike is certainly impacting Tesoro’s bottom line, Deutsche said the company has still been able to meet its customers’ demands for transportation fuels with its other two facilities on the West Coast.

While the Martinez facility is not refining oil, Deutsche said the company is operating its fueling station for non-refined products. She estimated roughly 150 employees out of 650 are still working during the strike. The strike has been hard on refinery workers, Scott said.

The union is able to offer some monetary assistance to striking workers so they can pay bills and make mortgage payments, Scott said:

“It’s hard on everybody. It’s hard on the membership, it’s hard on the families, and it’s hard on the company. … From a standpoint of overall morale though, I think people are doing well. The membership really wants the industry to take them seriously but unfortunately, to date, they haven’t done so.”

It’s also hard on the young baseball players and their parents, Behmlander said:

“The parents are very upset. They don’t understand why they can’t be playing on the 15 fields. … I haven’t talked to the kids directly, but the managers are calling me and telling me what they’re saying and it’s, ‘When are we going to get on our fields? When are we going to play ball?'”

Scott said the last time there was a strike like this one was 35 years ago and it lasted for three and a half months. No one would speculate on just how long this strike would last. But if there’s one thing that everyone could agree on, it’s the hope that negotiations are successful and the strike ends soon.

Deutsche said:

“Bottom line, we hope a settlement is reached soon so that we can get our employees back to work, our refinery back up and running and, of course, get the kids back to playing ball.”