Talks continue on new US refinery workers contract

HOUSTON, Jan 26 (Reuters) - With six days left before the expiration of a national basic labor agreement between 30,000 unionized U.S. refinery workers and their employers, negotiators met on Monday to hammer out a new deal.

Talks between lead refiner negotiator Shell Oil Co RDSa.L and the United Steelworkers union could go down to the wire late on Saturday, said USW union spokeswoman Lynne Baker.

Both sides have prepared for possible worker strikes or management lockouts if they fail to reach a new agreement. Neither the USW nor Shell have been willing to discuss the status of talks in detail.

The last nationwide strike by refinery workers was in 1980 and lasted about three months.

“We’re making some progress, but it is slow going,” Baker said. “We’re not focused on striking. There’s no guarantee we’re going on strike. We’re focused on getting a fair contract.”

BP Plc BP.L has said it will idle the four of its five U.S. refineries represented by labor unions if there is a strike or lockout. BP said it would shut the plants to continue the good working relationship it has formed with the USW in recovering from a deadly 2005 explosion at its Texas City, Texas, refinery.

A spokeswoman for Shell declined to comment on Monday because the company is in a quiet period ahead of the release of earnings on Thursday.

When talks began late last year, Shell and BP Plc BP.L both said they were optimistic a new deal would be negotiated in time to avoid a strike. Other refiners have declined to discuss the talks and referred calls to Shell.

Shell and the Steelworkers are negotiating the basic agreement that will be used to write the specific contracts between local USW unions and individual refineries.

The agreement also is the basis for deals between refineries represented by other labor unions and covers issues like pay and benefits.

In 2002, talks for the basic agreement went down to the deadline with the union agreeing to a extension of the existing agreement if needed to wrap up a deal in 24 hours.

In 2005, the union and refiners agreed to a 3-year extension one year before the existing pact expired.

The USW has beefed up its strike fund while refiners have put replacement workers on standby to keep plants operating.

The USW represents workers at refineries that account for about 50 percent of U.S. refining capacity of 17.6 million barrels per day. (Editing by Christian Wiessner)


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