Shell Strike of 1956

OCAW 1-591 History Series; Segment 1
as researched by Douglas W. Erlandson

 

On March 17, 1956, 320 members of OCAW 1-591 took a strike vote to enter into a labor dispute against Shell Oil of Anacortes. The Union was seeking its first ever collectively bargained agreement. The major points of contention were, a seniority clause, wages and a grievance procedure.  The strike vote passed by a 93% margin. Voting in favor were 269 with 18 voting no.

 

OCAW District 1 Director Charles Armin was on site to help the newly organized Local with their negotiations. International Representative Courtland Myers was assigned to lead the negotiations. As President, Robert Thurmond chaired the union’s negotiating committee. (In 1956, OCAW 1-591 was not ‘amalgamated’, as Shell was the local’s only employer.) The remaining committee members were, Vice-President Gene Stender, Secretary Ed Snyder, Harold Yeoman, Tom McCormick and Berlin Carr.

Unlike today’s strikes, Shell Oil shutdown the newly built $75,000,000 refinery. An undisclosed number of salaried workers and executives remained inside, being quartered in Pullman cars. OCAW picketers Bob May and Virgil Avey were Local 1-591's first picketers. They were on site and picketing within 10 minutes after hearing the news that the 'pin had been pulled'. OCAW maintained pickets 24 hours a day outside the refinery. Both sides prepared for a long dispute.

Shell Oil was offering a 6% general wage increase with a minimum of 15 cents hourly. The present scale was $1.96 to $2.54. The union was seeking the "Gulf Coast" rate, ranging from $2.25 to $2.90.

OCAW received immediate support from other local unions. The Anacortes Central Labor Council agreed not to allow any of their members to cross the OCAW picket line and the strike was unanimously endorsed by the Skagit Valley Building Trades Council.

To help OCAW members affected by the strike, the union set a 'Strike Benefit Committee' that was chaired by Berlin Carr. A food voucher program was set up with Mutt Jackson the manager of 'Tradewell', who's grocery store was conveniently located across the street from the union hall. The Benefit Committee also helped members by paying their electric power bills. Executive Board member Harold Yeoman visited many of the local banks to inform them before hand, that some of the striking members would probably be falling behind on their loans but everything would be made right when the strike ended.

On March 29th, Federal Mediator William Hosie contacted Shell Oil and OCAW to schedule a preliminary meeting to discuss the differing issues between the two parties. Both agreed to the mediation offer.

By now the entire community was passionately wrapped up in the dispute and was hoping an early, amicable settlement would be reached. Shell Oil began mailing job offers to the striking OCAW members, offering work to anyone willing to cross the picket line. They also began taking out newspaper ads advertising job vacancies to the community at large as well as out of county solicitations. Twice Shell tried to bring in new employees without telling them that they would have to cross a picket line. Almost all of them immediately quit when they found out there was a labor dispute in progress.

Eventually some OCAW members did scab the picket line. The most vocal was Guy Vaughn Lewis Jr. He had informed the union through the local newspaper of his intention to cross the picket line. Several ‘Letters to the Editor’ were printed on the subject from both parties. By all accounts, the union had the community’s support. Shell continued their position by taking out huge newspaper ads, presenting the facts as they saw them. The union then set up a Public Relations Committee and answered them by ‘Letters to the Editor’ and newspaper ads of their own.

As might be expected, Mr. Lewis then became a target of the union members. On one occasion, while driving through the line, Lewis claimed Arthur Beacham struck his car with a metal object, scratching it. He then filed a complaint with authorities which later led to Mr. Beacham being arrested. The case later went to court, where a crowded court room heard testimony from four witnesses for the defense, and two for the prosecutor. Beacham was found guilty and fined $35.

Up until now, OCAW had allowed contractors to pass through the picket line, but on April 9th, all but two passes were revoked by the union. President Thurmond stated that, "Shell was trying to demoralize the membership by having contractors cross the line as well as trying to provoke picket line violence."

In early June, the committee took Shell's latest, revised offer to the membership for a vote. Upwards to 225 members were on hand. After a long meeting wherein each page was read, point by point, the members voting by secret ballot, rejected the offer nearly unanimously. The disagreement remained over wages, seniority, scheduling, hospital insurance, vacations, union security, and the grievance procedure. A quick settlement was not in sight.

Support money started to come in from other Labor organizations. OCAW District 1 donated a whopping $1000! International Rep. Myers stated that in all his years in the labor movement he had never seen such strong public support. Every trade union in the area had sanctioned the strike and was giving their full support.

By now the wives of the strikers were very active. They helped show a unified OCAW by serving food and coffee to the picketers around the clock. And they started collecting coffee can rims to get a free 30 cup coffee pot from ‘MJB’ for the union hall. 75 lids were needed and when it became obvious the women’s support group wasn’t going to be able to collect enough, ‘MJB’ was contacted and they were very gracious and gave them one.

In a desperate move to get the plant up and running, Shell went to Oak Harbor to recruit help from a group of soon to be discharged Navy crewmen. Shell was able to hire about 30 sailors offering them a terrific future with the company. But the refinery needed about 300 employees to operate it properly. They then tried to recruit summer help from among some college students. Shell graciously pointed out to them that this would be a great way to raise the tuition money they would need for college. Several tried but soon quit. The passage through the picket line proved to be too traumatic.

On May 28th, Al Noyes, a scab Shell employee returning to his home in Burlington was critically injured at 2am when a large rock crashed through his windsphrld striking him in the head. Noyes was discovered unconscious in his automobile on the Avon cutoff to Burlington. According to the Sheriff’s department, the stone was five inches in diameter. Noyes was taken to a Skagit county hospital and then to Swedish Hospital in Seattle, later he lost the sight in his left eye. Sheriff Harold Hinshaw described the incident a case of ‘definite foul play.’ Shell Oil offered a huge $5000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the attack. Authorities were never able to connect anyone with the incident.

At a well attended membership meeting, the committee reported that some progress was being made. The company had offered a contract in California that had recently been accepted there. Although it had numerous items that came up short, it was an improvement over the company’s first proposal in Anacortes. Shell continued to mail out ‘back to work’ offers to the strikers as well as offer jobs to the community. The number of "takers" was less than ten. Most of them quit within 2 or 3 days.

Financial support for the striking local continued! OCAW locals 1-6, 1-356, 1-589, 1-120, 1-519, 1-128, 2-477 and 4-367 all sent regular monthly contributions. Money was received from the Washington State CIO Council, Spokane Labor Council, United Steel Workers of America and the Pulp & Sulfite Workers Union. Many of the locals raised their dues to ‘back’ the Anacortes Shell group. In the spirit of solidarity, Canada’s OCAW District Council generously donated $1000 to the strikers as well. Even the Sheep Shearers Union made a financial contribution, even though almost no one knew they even existed.

To help resolve the dispute, a 'Citizens Conciliatory Committee' was put together. This unique committee was made up of 8 local business men who had the respect of both management and labor. The committee members were Jerry Mansfield, Fred Cartwright, Scott Richards, Bill McCracken, Lloyd Foster, Rufus Fox, Dick Wilson, and Ivar Antonius. Above all else, they remained impartial as they explored ways that might help resolve the strike. The committee met with Shell, with the union and with Mediator Hosie. Never jointly, always separately. The committee's efforts were a vital factor in the two parties reaching a tentative agreement.

On July 22nd the strike settlement agreement was signed by International Representative Courtland Myers, Chairman R.E. Thurmond and Shell Oil. The 122 day strike was officially brought to a close.

The gains won by the union were: a good seniority clause, grievance procedure, improved contract reopening language, improved vacation plan, a shop steward system, safety language, even rain gear, all of which are still enjoyed by OCAW members today. The wage issue however, remained unchanged from the original company offer.

On the morning of July 24th the ex-strikers returned to work in unison. They were met by R.C. Barton, Refinery Manager and A.D. Northcutt, Personnel Manager. There were many smiles and much handshaking. Coffee was served by the company.

At the large gathering President Thurmond thanked the members of Local 1-591 and their wives, OCAW International, fellow oil workers from other OCAW locals, trade unions and labor organizations, as well as the community for their faithful support. Everyone’s support helped bring the strike to an end.

Upon returning to work, the ex-strikers all received a retroactive pay check that was part of the settlement agreement the union was able to get Shell to agree to.

    

From Company-imposed work rules to the Local's first contract.