Tuesday, March 29, 2005 

Two cultures, two communities at BP plant
Contractors killed in blast not part of union 'family'
By Mark Lisheron

TEXAS CITY - Sonny Sanders wouldn't be goaded into an evaluation of contract
workers late last week - not with the dead not yet buried, not with the
families of the dead too grief-stricken to begin asking what happened.

Whatever happened at the BP oil refinery last week happened mostly to
contract workers.

A handful of the 100 people injured were employees of BP and members in good
standing of the union Sanders has led for more than a dozen years. All 15 of
the dead - three of whom were buried Monday - were working for BP under

And for all the sympathy expressed by company officials from British head
Lord John Browne down, the BP employee on the line sees contract workers as
somehow something less than full partners in the success of the refinery,
objects of suspicion and derision.

"There is no dealing with them," Sanders says. "We don't commingle. We are
two separate social cultures. They are like a neighbor, and we are family.
And it is as if something bad happened to your neighbor."

Most contract workers declined to be interviewed for this story, citing fear
of reprisal.

For BP, contract workers are an economic necessity, bringing essential
expertise and levels of safety to sensitive work, says Hugh Depland, general
manager of public affairs for BP.

The relationship between company employees and contract workers is as
complex as the knot of pipes, tanks, furnaces and blow stacks that make up a

And in much the same way that workers in a refinery negotiate their
workplace, company employees have a way of simplifying their relationship
with contract workers.

This relationship turns on the twin axis of competition for jobs and job

To borrow Sanders' metaphor, the neighbor moved in more than 20 years ago
and never left. In the interim, the neighbor's family, while transient and
ever changing, has grown to roughly twice the size of the BP family.

On Wednesday, when an explosion leveled a unit where gasoline is reworked to
boost its octane, about 2,200 contract workers were at the sprawling BP
plant, compared with 1,100 BP employees.

At its height in 1991, Sanders' union local, Paper, Allied-Industrial,
Chemical and Energy International, had 1,600 members. Today, membership
stands at fewer than 1,000.

Using contractors for work once done by employees has been standard in the
petrochemical industry for 15 years. Oil companies save huge sums in large
part because contractors pay their workers $5 to $10 an hour less than what
company employees earn.

It would be simplistic and inaccurate to view contract workers as less
skilled and underpaid, Depland says.

In a plant where all moving parts are working around the clock in the
production of gasoline and its byproducts, the repair or replacement of
those parts - the turnaround - goes on year-round.

The restarting of a large, complex unit dedicated to producing a volatile
fuel is perhaps the most dangerous work at a refinery. That's what was
happening when the explosion occurred last week.

Preliminary evidence suggests a flammable liquid and vapor were released and
then ignited as the equipment was restarted, investigators said Monday.

"BP believes that by using workers who specialize in turnarounds that it is
actually an additive for safety and operational efficiency," Depland says.

"We certainly wouldn't trust our extremely expensive and sensitive equipment
to workers lacking the expertise to maintain it. That flies in the face of

Turnaround work shifts to contractors

When the industry last suffered a comparable loss of life - in 1990 when 17
workers died in an explosion at the ARCO refinery in Channelview - 11 of the
victims were doing a turnaround for contractor Austin Industrial.

A year earlier, when 23 workers died and more than 200 were injured in a
blast at a Phillips Petroleum chemical plant in Pasadena, an investigation
laid blame, without being specific, on contract workers on a turnaround,
many of whom were killed in the explosion.

A 1991 study ordered by Congress after the Phillips explosion showed that an
increasing number of oil plant explosions and fires were linked to the work
of contract employees.

The authors of the study for the John Gray Institute at Lamar University in
Beaumont concluded that for a variety of interrelated reasons, contract
workers in the oil business tended not to be as well trained in their work
and in their safety practices as their company employee counterparts.

Oil companies worried that if they provided safety training to contract
workers, they would be liable if something went wrong on the job, the study

There has been no comparable recent study, but Sanders says the message he
delivered then, when the hair under his hardhat was all black, is the same
one he offered after the explosion last week as the international
representative for PACE.

"I think the person who works in the plant on a daily basis, who knows its
hazards and its safety features, is the safest worker," Sanders says in his
office next to the meeting hall in the union building on
29th Street.

"We've got grievances by the box on the uses of contract workers at our
plant. We get them on a daily basis. We fight them battle by battle."

The idea of a generalist in a refinery - turnaround work used to be done by
workers who had other duties at the plants - is as outmoded as a patient
with heart trouble seeking help from a general practitioner, Depland says.

"We make use of this worker with this particular skill set so that our
employees can use their particular skill set on the day-to-day operation of
a large, complex refinery," he says.

Many contract workers walked away from requests for interviews. One young
worker ordering a beer at the Texas Tavern near the BP plant and wearing the
dingy tan jumpsuit that identifies a contract worker, said he expected that
contract workers already have been blamed by union members for an explosion
that so far has no identifiable cause.

Company town gives way to contract town

If not direct blame, there remains a deep suspicion of the contract work
force at oil refineries, Pete Aguilar says.

Aguilar ought to know. A union pipefitter for Amoco and, later, BP when the
companies merged, Aguilar retired and then returned two years ago as a
contract worker, first for Altair Strickland and currently for Industrial
Air Tool.

"I knew they were going to have a fire there sooner or later," Aguilar says.
"They do the turnarounds too fast, with too many people nowadays. A lot of
the guys they hire aren't from around here. When I was there, we used to
have certain ways of doing the work."

When Aguilar retired, he was making about $24 an hour. He did the same work
for Altair Strickland at $19 an hour.

Industrial Air Tool currently pays him about $15 an hour to dispense
lubricants such as WD-40, duct tape and plumber's putty out of an 18-foot
trailer brought to the BP site by the contractor. In the old days, all such
items would have been purchased and stocked in a warehouse by the company,
he says.

Aguilar is 61 and has lived since retirement in a trailer park just a few
hundred yards from the BP plant, so close that the explosion Wednesday blew
him out of bed. The blast broke his string of 35 consecutive 6 p.m. to 6
a.m. shifts.

That's the thing about contract work, Aguilar says, petting his miniature
Doberman pinscher, Rocky, in his tiny living room. You work hard when you're
needed. Aguilar says he has been clearing $1,000 a week.

When the work isn't there, some contractors and their workers move on, to
Pasadena, Beaumont or along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, chasing turnarounds
at other plants.

But many, like Aguilar, his son, Mike, and his nephew Arthur Valdez Jr.,
stay with the contracting companies that have, over the years, forged
longstanding agreements with the refineries such as BP.

The company town has become a contractor town doing the bidding of the
company, Aguilar says, because that's the way it is.

But that doesn't mean things are better. Aguilar then summons the word
Sanders uses.

"When we belonged to the union, it was like being part of a family. You knew
how the union felt about safety," Aguilar says. "Hey, everybody's gotta make
a living. My son, his cousin.

"But I never really liked the way they (contract workers) did their work.
Our workers did the job right the first time. And I think there still is
that feeling over at the plant."

Union, company unite to push safety

After the explosion, CEO Lord Browne spoke with pride of a culture of safety
at BP. Signs bearing the logos of both BP and the union are in ample
evidence at the site.

"We have only one safety standard at BP, and it applies to all workers,
employees and contract workers," Depland says.
And as the influence of contract work has grown, its specialization has
grown, too.

Steve Meredith, who had to free himself from a safety harness on a
scaffolding to escape a wall of flame roaring toward him on Wednesday, has
little in common with Aguilar other than the title of contract worker.

Meredith is peripatetic. Last month he was in Norway. His home is in
Aberdeen, Scotland.

His contractor, London-based Analytic Stress, sent Meredith and a team of
five others specifically to oversee a particular kind of heat treatment to
control stress on welds on much of the equipment being turned around at BP.
The work itself is preventive and done for safety.

Until Wednesday, Meredith had not been so close to death, but he is not a
stranger to petrochemical disaster.

Of the 167 people who died in an explosion on a Piper Alpha platform in 1988
in the North Sea, 42 of them were colleagues and friends of Meredith.
Risk is part of his work and what always determines the balance between
innovation and safety, he says.

In the three weeks he and the team worked at BP, almost all of the contact
with BP employees came over safety issues, making sure a scaffolding harness
was secure, earplugs were fixed in ears.

The first full week was spent in safety training. Each work shift is
followed by a safety talk given by a BP employee.

Safety occupies a place in the BP culture that Meredith says he has seen at
no other petroleum company in the world.

"I can categorically say that in 30 years in this game, that this was the
most intense safety training I had ever received," Meredith says, draining
the last of a small Styrofoam cup of coffee in the common room at the
Crystal Suites, not far from the BP plant.

Meredith says he is fully prepared to return to Scotland, depending on what
BP supervisors say this week, and confident in his safety if he is asked to
stay on.

"This is the most safety-conscious place I have ever worked."


April 2, 2005, 10:50PM

Wal-Mart foes launch unified effort

New York Times

Led by Wal-Mart's longtime opponents in organized labor, a new coalition of about 50 groups — including environmentalists, community organizations, state lawmakers and academics — is planning the first coordinated assault intended to press the company to change the way it does business.

In the next few months, those critics say, they will speak with one voice in print advertising, videos and books attacking the company. They plan to put forward an association of disenchanted Wal-Mart employees, current and former, to complain about what they call poverty-level wages and stingy benefits.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is in turn mounting a huge counteroffensive. Last week, it took out an advertisement across two pages in the New York Review of Books in which it defended its business practices and accused its union detractors of being selfish.

  April 2, 2005, 8:18PM



Latinos will feel pain of lost jobs


Congress will likely soon consider a distressing trade agreement that promises to hurt Texas, with a disproportionate chunk of the pain afflicting Latinos. This trade deal mirrors the North American Free Trade Agreement in its inadequacies regarding the treatment of both labor and environmental issues.

Its destructive impact on jobs we rely upon in our community is equally distressing. Its of real concern to me and I believe that the fate of our community's health will lie in Congress hands.

NAFTA wreaked havoc on many vital sectors of our economy. It decimated manufacturers and small farmers in the United States, with some studies estimating that 38,000 small American farms and 2.5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have disappeared since NAFTA was implemented more than 10 years ago.

The loss of those manufacturing jobs hit the Latino community particularly hard. In fact, nearly half the people seeking federal aid after losing their jobs due to NAFTA were Latino.

Job losses aside, NAFTA is also widely criticized for exacerbating labor rights abuses and causing environmental crises. Rather than fostering regional integration and cooperation, NAFTA benefits large multinational corporations at the expense of workers, the environment and democracy. While both sides of the NAFTA deal were affected, citizens along the U.S.-Mexico border region took the brunt of it. They have wrestled with greater exposure to environmental health problems related to air pollution, inadequate water and sewage treatment, exposure to pesticides and hazardous wastes.

Made from the same mold, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, will likely spawn similar, or even greater, loss and abuse. Between the United States and six countries in the Central American region notorious for turning a blind eye toward child labor and environmental atrocities, CAFTA promises to deliver the same dubious benefits to the United States that NAFTA did. In fact, this deal is a step backward from the already weak labor and environmental agreements instituted in NAFTA.

CAFTA's proponents argue the trade agreement will benefit those poor nations in the Central American region. Interestingly, NAFTA's proponents promised much the same thing: They said that the agreement would stabilize Mexico's economy.

The result? Soon after the agreement was signed, more than 1.3 million Mexican farmers lost their livelihoods. Many of them migrated north to the cities looking for jobs in the maquiladoras only to watch some 30 percent of those jobs sent to cheaper markets in Asia and Central America. In desperation, many Mexicans fled to the United States: unauthorized immigration from Mexico to the this country soared between 1990 and 2000, mostly after NAFTA was signed. This surge also tragically resulted in more than 2,700 deaths in failed border crossing attempts since NAFTA.

Before NAFTA, union wages and robust benefit packages that accompanied manufacturing jobs promised upward mobility for many Latinos, including home ownership and college educations for their children. Fast-forward to present day post-NAFTA: Latino communities dependent on manufacturing — particularly those in the textiles industry — face a bleak future, as any new jobs created in the current economy will likely pay only a small proportion of what they used to. In some parts of Texas, laid-off Latino manufacturing workers are facing double-digit unemployment and poverty rates as high as one third all since NAFTA.

This is the kind of free trade deal — one that encourages workers to join the sad and ever-growing race to the bottom — that the United States should pursue?

If approved by Congress, CAFTA will directly, and disproportionately, threaten the well-being of the Latino community. Jobs will continue to disappear; immigration will continue to rise, with immigrants being exploited as cheap labor without rights; and our environment will continue to suffer serious setbacks as rules are first bent, then broken.

Done right, a free trade agreement should raise the standard of living for people, strengthen respect for the environment, and promote integration, social development and democracy. CAFTA, like its predecessor, would do none of these things. 

Martinez based in San Antonio, is National labor adviser for the League of United Latin American Citizens and President of the Texas Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle