Thirty-five union workers have been out of work since May 23 in the wake of a decision by the ExxonMobil refinery to switch contractors that do certain maintenance work at the refinery.
Labor leaders say the new contractor pays its non-union workers $12 per hour with no benefits, about half as much as the union workers they replaced.
“Everybody was in shock and the emotions were high. We kept thinking, ‘How can they do this?’ ” said Melissa Deitsch, a member of the laborers' union and one who lost her job.
Deitsch, a single mother of three children, had worked for more than five years for LG Construction, a contractor that does a variety of maintenance tasks at the refinery. She started working outside as a laborer but most recently administered contractor orientation, part of the safety program. “When people came on the site, they saw me first,” Deitsch said.
Paul Doherty, project manager for LG Construction, said he was told that ExxonMobil had decided, for business reasons, to redistribute some of the maintenance work. LG, which has a union workforce, has been working at ExxonMobil’s Billings refinery for more than 19 years, and it continues to do some tasks at the refinery. The number of workers that LG employs at the refinery can change depending on the season and what types of maintenance work must be done, Doherty said.
“We provide a safe and quality service to ExxonMobil, and we’d be happy to continue providing it,” Doherty said. “But that service has been adjusted, and that has had the effect of reducing the size of the force.”
The work that was previously done by LG Construction will now be done by Brand Energy Services, according to labor leaders and former LG employees.
Dan Carter, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, confirmed the refinery had changed maintenance contractors but declined to provide additional information because it involves contracts between the company and its contractors.
Henry Cellmer, president of the Southeast Montana Building and Construction Trades Council, said the displaced workers are members of the carpenters, laborers and insulators unions, which had worked at the refinery for more than 60 years.
“After talking with Monica Mainland (plant manager for ExxonMobil) we find that the members were not replaced for any reason other than that ExxonMobil believes this will make the company more competitive in the marketplace,” Cellmer wrote in a letter.
“It gets a little hard to stomach when one of the world’s largest corporations feels that the only way it can be competitive is to replace jobs of the working class with people that will not have enough income to keep their kids off of CHIP and food stamps,” Cellmer said.
Becky Riedl, a field agent for the Montana Laborers Local 1686, said workers are still in shock.
“They want to give away good jobs to companies that pay no benefits and no retirement,” Riedl said. “You’re helping to create a population of people working at $12 an hour, where you can’t survive and raise a family.”