Labor contracts are set to expire at all three Billings-area refineries next Tuesday. Local talks are under way, although nationally oil companies are preparing to stay open should negotiations fail.
Area refineries confirmed Tuesday that labor negotiations with the United Steel Workers are taking place. Locally and nationally, most refinery labor agreements expire Feb. 1 at 12:01 a.m., a deadline that looms simultaneously at refineries every three years.
“Our local union and ExxonMobil are currently engaged in a negotiation and discussion, but we don’t discuss the details while they’re negotiating,” said Pam Malek, an ExxonMobil spokeswoman.
Malek said the refinery-specific details would be worked out at the local level while broad labor negotiations took place at the national level.
Lani Jordan, CHS Inc. spokeswoman, said talks at the company’s Laurel refinery had been under way for a while. There hasn’t been a strike at the Laurel refinery since 1984. Jordan said the last three-year contract negotiated wasn’t finalized until Feb. 20, but workers stayed on the job.
The ConocoPhillips refinery also didn’t return calls. Locally, the United Steel Workers refused comment. Interview requests to the national USW office weren’t returned.
The area’s refineries are all Class 7 employers, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, meaning each employs 250 to 500 workers.
As negotiations began last week, media outlet Thompson Reuters reported from Houston that oil companies were making plans to keep refineries running without USW labor, should negotiations fail.
A national strike at all 69 U.S. facilities could crimp two-thirds of U.S. oil refining, the USW said at the start of negotiations. A nationwide shutdown hasn’t occurred since 1980.
Improved heath and safety conditions at U.S. refineries were identified as key issues by the USW as talks began. In 2009, union negotiators surrendered some health and safety demands in exchange for 3 percent annual pay raises and $2,500 bonuses. The negotiations lasted 12 days.