Last October, Air Alliance Houston participated in an Environmental Protection Agency hearing on a new rule limiting toxic pollution from oil refineries. Most of the hearing participants were allies of ours who we knew were in favor of the rule. There were a few speakers representing oil companies who were opposed to the rule. One speaker, though, represented the United Steelworkers.
I remember paying particular attention when he began speaking, because I honestly didn’t know which way the Steelworkers would go on the rule.
I shouldn’t have been concerned. The Steelworkers supported the refinery rule because it took steps to improve worker safety. In retrospect, that was obvious. It was a clear demonstration of something I have always heard: public health advocates and industry employees want the same thing—a safe and healthy environment in which to live and work.
This week, when the Steelworkers Union began its strike at oil refineries across the nation, I saw once again that Union members want many of the same things that we do. They want reasonable working hours, on the job training, and management that takes health and safety precautions seriously.
Two of the biggest concerns of strikers—overworked employees and lax safety—are closely related. Companies are responding to shortage of skilled workers not by offering new training opportunities but by working existing employees overtime. Managers looking to boost production sometimes sacrifice safety measures. In both cases, companies are taking a shortsighted approach to maximize profits. What’s more, fatigued employees are more likely to make mistakes that create health or safety hazards.
Unions have less power today than they did in the past. And this is the first large-scale strike in the refining industry in more than three decades. The contract negotiations are being kept secret, and its difficult to speculate where this will lead. But to the extent that the United Steelworkers are calling for better worker treatment and more investment in health and safety protections, we support them 100%.