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United Steelworkers union members working at the CHS refinery in Laurel and at the ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil refineries in Billings could go on strike as early as Sunday if contract negotiations fail.

The USW contracts for all three refineries, and other union locals across the U.S., expire at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

CHS refinery manager Pat Kimmet and Mike Belinak, president of the USW Local 11-443 in Laurel, issued a joint statement saying that no strike vote has been taken in Laurel and negotiations are continuing.

"Substantial progress had been made; however, there are some remaining unresolved local issues at this time. We are hopeful we will come to a mutually acceptable agreement," they said.

The local represents 201 workers at the Laurel refinery. The Billings USW local represents about 140 ExxonMobil workers and about 200 at the ConocoPhillips refinery.

Refinery manager Steve Steach said three offers have been made nationally and that the local talks between ConocoPhillips and the USW are going well.

"Negotiations have been positive and productive, and we feel we will reach agreement, Steach said.

Even if all the local issues are resolved, he said the Billings-area refineries must wait for a national settlement. So far, there has been no extension granted at the national level, he said.

ExxonMobil spokeswoman Pam Malek also said that her company wouldn't "discuss details away from the negotiating table," but she said local talks with the union began in mid-December.

USW International representative Steve Gentry of Billings couldn't be reached for comment.

The local talks are part of national contract negotiations between the USW and Royal Dutch Shell, which is the lead oil company in the talks. That means whatever deal may be negotiated between Shell and the USW will be used as a model by the other major oil companies.

Nationally, about 30,000 USW workers, or 58 percent of American refining workers, are affected by the contract talks, as is 64 percent of the country's fuel-making capacity, according to Lynne Baker, a national USW spokeswoman quoted by

The union is asking for higher wages, a cost-of-living adjustment, and full medical, dental and vision care benefits for workers and retirees, Bloomberg reported.

Lani Jordan, director of corporate communications for CHS in St. Paul, Minn., said the last strike at the Montana refinery was in 1984.

"Obviously, everybody involved is waiting for things to be resolved at a national level," Jordan said. "We hope to have a respectful and productive process and hope that both sides would consider an extension."

ExxonMobil and Shell executives told that if the USW calls a strike, they plan to keep their U.S. plants running with nonunion employees and managers. Trailers and portable kitchens have been delivered to the ExxonMobil plant at Beaumont, Texas.

Contact Jan Falstad at or 657-1306.

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