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UPDATE 2:40 p.m. :

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.

"Right now, ExxonMobil is engaged in negotiations with the United Steelworkers union," said ExxonMobil spokeswoman Pam Malek. "At this point, we don’t consider this appropriate to discuss details away from the negotiating table."

Negotiations between her refinery and the union began in mid-December, Malek said, adding that the local talks are part of national negotiations between the USW and Royal Dutch Shell, which is the lead oil company in these 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 well as 64 percent of the country’s fuel-making capacity, according to Lynne Baker, a national USW spokeswoman quoted by Bloomberg.com.

Lani Jordan, director of corporate communications for CHS in St. Paul, 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.

Under the CHS contract, the union must give 24-hour notice of a strike, which would be tomorrow night for a potential strike Feb. 1.

"We hope to have a respectful and productive process," Jordan said, "and hope that both sides would consider an extension."

USW International representative Steve Gentry of Billings couldn’t be reached this morning for comment.

ExxonMobil and Shell executives told Bloomberg.com that said if the USW calls a strike, they plan on keeping their U.S. plants running with non-union employees and managers. Trailers and portable kitchens have been delivered to the ExxonMobil plant at Beaumont, Texas.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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