Tesoro Workers Rally

After 12 years working for the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Cory Bowen doesn’t feel like he’s received the compensation he’s earned.

Bowen took the job at the Tesoro refinery because of the good benefits, which also have recently fallen on the chopping block. Every day at work, he said he breathes contaminated air and works long and erratic shifts.

Then, almost two years ago, his younger brother, Matt Bowen, was killed in an explosion while working a night shift at the refinery.

“We’ve given enough of our blood, sweat and tears for this place,” Cory Bowen, 41, said as he stood outside the front gate of the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes on Tuesday.

Bowen was one of about 50 workers and supporters rallying Tuesday for a better contract between Tesoro and the workers union, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12-591.

They were joined by their families and members of other local unions who came with signs and loudspeakers, protesting Tesoro’s plan to leave workers’ benefits, including pension, 401(k), vacation and healthcare, open to change over the next three years. The union also is seeking additional safety measures to help avoid catastrophic disasters.

“We haven’t done this in 25 years because we haven’t had to before now,” said local USW president Steve Garey on a megaphone, standing in the bed of a pickup truck.

Union members said that if the refinery does not negotiate in what the workers believe are fair terms, they could go on strike.

“A strike is our last resort,” said Galen Prescott, a staff representative for the local USW. “We want to avoid a labor dispute, but if all else fails, that’s where we’re headed.”

Tesoro was contacted for comment for this story, but did not respond Tuesday.

The USW and Royal Dutch Shell Plc., which negotiates for Tesoro and other oil companies, recently reached a national agreement on wage increases for workers over the next three years. However, USW members representing six of Tesoro’s U.S. refineries are bargaining at the local level to lock in workers’ benefits and plant safety measures specific to their workplaces.

Ty Oullette, financial secretary for the local chapter of the USW, said that workers lost a year of earned vacation last year as a result of negotiations. The company also reduced contributions to its employees’ 401(k) accounts.

Along with an improved and secure benefits package, protesters were seeking additional safety measures at the plant. Oullette said the USW seeks to add additional safety measures, including process safety standards, which would record unsafe operating conditions in machinery.

Oullette said that the refineries have been unwilling to negotiate on these safety measures.

For many of the workers, the company’s stance on safety precautions is a painful reminder of the deadly explosion in April 2010 that killed seven workers.

To honor the victims, a group of about 60 employees walked out to the rally on their lunch break, wearing their blue work clothes and smelling of oil and machinery. The protesters handed them flowers to place at a memorial constructed inside the refinery for the seven workers.

One of the men on his lunch break, Paul Gumbel, was working the night his son, Matthew Gumbel, 34, was fatally injured in the explosion. A tear fell from Paul Gumbel’s eye Tuesday as another worker handed him a carnation and gave him a hug.

“We’re caring for both the Matts today,” Bowen said to Gumbel.

Bowen said any change in medical benefits will affect his brother’s widow and young children.

“We’re fighting for them still, too,” he said.

Other workers protesting simply want the benefits they signed up for years ago.

Clay Price has been working at the refinery for 22 years. He worked the night shift Monday before returning to the rally Tuesday morning.

“They’re giving us their list of wants, but they’re not giving us anything in return,” he said. “The whole thing is kind of scary.”

Other members from the local Walmart and nurses’ union also were at the rally in support of the steelworkers.

“This employer should never negotiate safety,” said Julia Weinbern, a nurse at Skagit Valley Hospital and president of the local chapter of the Washington Nurses Association.

Two teenagers joined the crowd as their father, Ron Savage, worked inside the refinery. Jordan Savage, 13, said he likes that his father has a good-paying job, but is aware of the risk he takes every day to bring home a salary.

“I worry about him a lot,” Jordan said. “It’s a dangerous job.”