Oil and Gas

Talks ongoing for new U.S. refinery workers contract

HOUSTON, Feb 1 (Reuters) - United Steelworkers negotiators and oil company representatives returned to the bargaining table Sunday, one day after telling thousands of U.S. refinery and chemical plant workers to stay on the job as they try to hammer out a new national contract.

The USW decided Saturday night to extend the current agreement on a rolling 24-hour basis to keep talks ongoing without a nationwide strike.

The Steelworkers can call a strike by giving lead refiner negotiator Shell Oil Co RDSa.L 24-hour notice of a walkout, union spokeswoman Lynne Baker said on Sunday.

A strike would idle at least 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity within days as top refiners Valero Energy Corp VLO.N and BP Plc BP.L have said they will close some of their refineries if a work stoppage happens.

Other refiners like Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp XOM.N, and ConocoPhillips COP.N have said they plan to keep churning out fuels and petrochemicals with replacement workers they have been pulling together over the past 12 months in preparation for a possible strike.

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

Gasoline prices in the United States rose last week on fears a strike would crimp supply, and they could go higher if work stoppages have a major impact on U.S. refineries.

The USW represents workers at plants accounting for 64 percent of U.S. refining capacity, Baker said.

About 24,000 workers at 74 refineries, chemical plants, terminals and pipelines, whose contract was extended Saturday, could begin walking off their jobs if a strike is called, she said. Another 6,000 workers at 12 facilities could join them when their contracts expire.

But a worsening U.S. recession has smothered demand for gasoline and other refined products, and U.S. fuel stocks are plentiful, leading some analysts to predict a limited impact from a walkout.

In a week of face-to-face negotiations in Austin, Texas, the USW has rejected three contract offers from Shell, Baker said.

“No fourth offer has been received from Shell,” she said.

Shell spokesman Stan Mays declined to discuss details of the talks on Sunday. The company looks forward to reaching an agreement with the union, he said.

Simultaneous to the talks with Shell for a national contract, local unions are meeting with refining, petrochemical and pipeline companies over local issues such as work-site rules and overtime allocation.

The local issues agreements will be paired with the national agreement for individual contracts at each of the plants.

The existing three-year pact was set to expire shortly after midnight on Sunday. After that, as many as 24,000 workers at U.S. refineries, chemical plants and pipelines could have walked off their jobs.

Sources familiar with the talks have said sticking points appear to be the USW’s push for stronger worker safety provisions in the new contract and health-care benefits for workers and retirees.

This round of talks is the first since the deadly 2005 explosion at BP’s giant Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 workers. Union officials have promised their members worker safety would be a key feature of negotiations for a new contract. (Editing by Maureen Bavdek)