* Process safety key issue in refinery contract talks
* Shell to lead oil cos in talks with Steelworkers
By Erwin Seba
DALLAS, Sept 23 The largest U.S. refinery workers' union is prepared to strike for the first time in 32 years unless oil companies agree to step up safeguards by next February, a top union official said on Friday.
In unusually blunt comments following a meeting to hammer out the union's initial demands, Gary Beevers, international vice president of the United Steelworkers and the senior official dealing with refinery worker negotiations, said he was bracing for a tough round of bargaining against a gloomy economic backdrop.
Unlike the previous negotiations in early 2009, when unions were wary of asking too much as the economy slowly emerged from recession and a new Democratic president offered hope for the future, workers are prepared to stand stronger this year.
"The thing that will weigh on my decision is whether we achieve meaningful and enforceable health and safety improvements," Beevers said. "If we don't, we won't be at work."
A blast that killed seven people at Tesoro's Anacortes, Washington, refinery last April sharpened criticism that operators had sacrificed safety to improve financial returns. A federal refinery inspection program yielded hundreds of citations for failing to follow minimum safety standards.
The United Steelworkers union represents workers who operate 64 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
Some of the nation's refiners have already begun preparing for a possible work stoppage by training former workers and supervisors to operate refining units, according to sources familiar with operations at those plants.
Refiners have made similar preparations in previous contract talks.
It has been a trying few years for refinery workers as some U.S. operators close down plants where margins have been crushed by slackening domestic demand.
The Steelworkers have also been getting ready since the 2009 talks, which ended in frustration as the industry refused to agree on process safety standards, Beevers said.
"Yes, we're prepared," he said. "We've been preparing for three years. We told the industry three years ago that we'd be back. And they would see us every day, every month until we ended up back at the bargaining table."
Over 300 union leaders met at a Dallas hotel this week to lay out proposals which local USW unions must approve within 45 days before Beevers takes them to the bargaining table. The local unions will also vote on whether to give Beevers authority to lead a strike.
"We think a fight is senseless," he said. "We think it's extremely unnecessary. We think it's going to hurt everybody involved. All it would simply take to avoid a fight is for the industry to say 'Yes, we agree. We want to partner with you to make these refineries safer' and sit down and have that discussion."
Shell Oil Co spokeswoman Jill Davis confirmed that executives from Royal Dutch Shell Plc's (RDSa.L) U.S. unit will represent U.S. oil companies at the talks, which are expected to begin in earnest in the new year.
She said the negotiators will strive to resolve issues presented in what the union calls its National Oil Bargaining Program to the satisfaction of both "management and the union."
In addition to safety, the workers will seek a substantial pay increase, Beevers said, but he declined to disclose specific proposals under consideration.
Under the current three-year agreement, reached in 2009, USW members have received an annual 3 percent pay raise, but agreed to pay an increased share of their health care costs.
The 2006-2009 contract had higher annual pay increases, but that agreement was reached when refining margins were running at record highs.
"We have a number of things we want to talk about," Beevers said. "Our goal is to stop the fires and the explosions and the injuries and the deaths that we've been having." (Editing by Jim Marshall)