Nationwide Strike of 1969

OCAW 1-591 History Series; Segment 2
as researched by Douglas W. Erlandson

 

On January 8th International President Al Grospiron called a nationwide strike against the oil industry. Although the contract had expired January 1st, the unionized work forces remained on the job while negotiations continued. But because Grospiron couldn't get the industry to move on wages and benefits the strike was called.

Locally, our membership was serviced by International Representative Tom Burkholder. Mike Jensen was our President and Ed Eliason Sr. was the Financial Secretary. The Shell committee was Chairman Ken Tiscornia, Jim Beernink, Lloyd Good, Del Carlson and Richard Dessell. The Texaco committee was Chairman Carl Smitha, Joe Ferrario, I.B. Anderson, Marion Peck and Gene Vaughn.

The union set up 24 hour pickets around both refineries. The brothers at General Chemical doubled their monthly dues to help support the cause. International picket pay was $25 a week.

The companies and the union continued to meet but there was little progress being made. Picket line duty was a cold proposition. The ground was covered with snow and the daily temperature was below freezing.

Right from the start, Shell maintained a poor picket line relationship. Their goal was to get the Union in a position so they could get a court ordered injunction, hoping it would cripple the picket line's effectiveness. Some of the staff and guards would taunt the picketers, trying to incite misbehavior. And to catch the moment, Shell had hired local photographer John Vallentyne. Anacortes High School had also hired Mr. Vallentyne as the photographer for the school's annual. Because he was busy at the picket line, he wasn't working on the annuals, so when it became obvious to the School District the annuals weren't going to be delivered on time, they fired him. (Ultimately the annuals were mailed out after the Senior Class had graduated.)

In early January, 13 Texaco storage tanks had their low point valves opened, which drained their contents into the containment diking system. The company was infuriated and immediately blamed the union. They took out ads in the local newspapers offering a $10,000 reward for arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible. OCAW rumors attributed the incident to a couple of disgruntled out of state staff workers who were eager to end the dispute so they could go home. Despite an exhaustive investigation, Texaco was never able to attribute the incident to anyone.

Although there were OCAW pickets in place across both companies truck racks, the Teamsters Union truck drivers continually drove through. The drivers would then on occasion, stop at the "19th Hole Cafe" for a break. Mysteriously, several left with bad radiators. One Teamster driver was seen heading down the highway with an arrow sticking out of one of his tires.

In another incident, while entering Mount Vernon, a diesel truck and trailer driver discovered diesel leaking from the rear of his trailer caused by a bullet hole. County Sheriff John Boynton was called to the site. The driver reported hearing a noise as he exited Texaco's refinery truck rack which was probably when the shot was fired but attached no significance to it at the time. The truck driver was able to stop the leak by driving a wooden peg into the hole. Boynton declined to comment on who might have fired the shot but noted that because of where the hole was, he felt sure there was no intention to hit the driver. The incident was never resolved.

OCAW now began actively picketing the Harbor Island terminal. This caused a major disruption in the facilities daily schedule. Personal boats were used to picket the tanker traffic. The unionized tug boat crews refused to sail any tanker that had an OCAW picket in front of it. Because it was so cold out, one tanker that was full of asphalt set up. Finally, in desperation, the tanker was untied and set adrift unattended, which by law, forced the tug boats to attend to it. Because of extreme high winds, one OCAW picket boat, which was already in poor condition, sank. It later washed up on shore all busted up.

In late February, 173 Texaco members voted to reject the company's latest offer to the surprise of the negotiating committee who had recommended acceptance. The main objection was the clause that would have allowed Texaco indefinite time to seek out and punish union members involved with the vandalism of the oil storage tanks that were recently drained of their contents into the surrounding containment dikes. Affixing blame had become a major goal for local Texaco officials. 

OCAW members, Marion Peck and Jim Ferrel, while living out of a camp trailer, started traveling around picketing the bulk plant and gas stations at random. This caused huge traffic problems, enough so that the local sheriff was called and both were arrested. Before they even got to cop shop, OCAW’s attorney John Burns had their bail posted. The Sheriff’s comment was, ‘You guy’s must know somebody pretty important,’ ‘I’ve never seen bail posted before even getting to the station!' Later, the judge who was to hear the case, postponed it. He said he wasn’t a ‘labor’ judge and needed to study up on it. The charges were then dropped after the strike was settled.

Shell and Texaco called John Boynton, the county sheriff, at every opportunity, even if the matter was trivial. Because he mostly wanted to stay out of it, his response was usually less than enthusiastic, which angered the companies. Eventually the companies thought they had enough evidence and incidences to seek an injunction in court against the union. Shell Oil presented their case first. They complained about the union’s picket line behavior and then complained extensively about Sheriff Boynton’s unwillingness to help them. After listening to the arguments from both sides, the Judge ordered that a ‘principle picketer’ from each party had to be in attendance at the line from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, daily, to help hold down all the extracurricular activity. He then defined ‘principle picketer’ as Shell’s Plant Manager R. C. Barton, or the head of Shell’s Employee Relations department R.J. Devolio or Jess Ford, Shell's ER Supervisor. And for the union it was defined as the International Representative Tom Burkholder or the Financial Secretary Ed Eliason Sr. or Shell Chair Ken Tiscornia. Each party could name one alternate. Shell Oil was shocked! And the union was shocked! Texaco management decided to drop their case and stated they would try and work things out with the union. (Texaco Plant Manager Pa Creel wasn’t interested in picketing in subfreezing weather).

In the middle of February, Texaco offered the ‘Unocal package’. The offer was accepted and the Texaco unit went back to work while the Shell group remained out.

Shell Oil sent out "no contract/me too" back to work offers at all their refinery locations. The Shell Martinez membership accepted it and went back to work. The Anacortes group refused. They weren’t going to return unless they had a contract. Chairman Tiscornia called a meeting at the "Sucia Reef" restaurant in Anacortes. At this meeting, the committee and Shell talked over their differences. At the end of the meeting Shell made an offer that didn’t quite meet ‘policy’ but the committee wanted to present it to the membership for a vote anyway.

Another item that needed negotiating was what to do with the members who had been disciplined due to picket line misbehavior. This became a stumbling block to the settlement. At a late night meeting over drinks at the Lighthouse Restaurant between Shell’s Plant Manager Barton and Burkholder, a deal was cut and all would be reinstated except Bernie Cross. He had been fired for shooting ball bearings with a slingshot at the company’s guards and truck rack employees. Because his case had been sent on to Houston, local Shell management was unable to drop it. Burkholder got the company to agree to arbitrate Cross’ case later while the rest of the unit went back to work. At the arbitration, Shell seemed to purposely put on a poor case, the union prevailed and the Arbiter ordered Cross reinstated.

Because the Shell offer didn’t quite meet ‘policy’, Representative Burkholder couldn’t sign the contract. So only the signatures of Shell management and the unit committee members and local officers appear on the document. Some of the gains made by the union were 6% and 4.5% pay increases and increased medical premiums. But the biggest gain was a fully paid company pension which OCAW members still enjoy to date

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.

Shortly after both contracts were settled, both Plant Managers retired.