Shell Strike of 1973

OCAW 1-591 History Series; Segment 3
as researched by Douglas W. Erlandson

 

On January 21st, OCAWIU President Bob Grospiron called over 4000 Shell OCAW members from 5 oil refineries and 3 chemical plants, out on strike. Then made a nationwide appeal to the public to boycott Shell Oil while the union continued its fight over the right to bargain health and safety issues.

The union was seeking:

     1) establishment of a joint Union-Management health
         & safety committee.
     2) wanted the committee workers paid while
         performing official committee duties.
     3) the right to call in independent health & safety
         inspectors.
     4) access to all company information on both death and
         disease rates.
     5) annual company medical examinations provided at
         the company's expense.

As a tactic for the 1973 strike, OCAW employed the first major "corporate campaign" in U.S. history. OCAW forged alliances with the scientific, academic, environmental and labor communities to fight Shell’s position that it would not bargain over health and safety. The union spent nearly half a million dollars to advertise a nationwide boycott of Shell and to educate the public about the need to protect the health of workers and the communities.

Even though 12 other major oil companies had already signed contracts that provided for the new joint union-management health and safety committees, they assisted Shell by buying their gasoline and blacklisting Shell's strikers. The oil industry's thinking was the new joint H&S committees would get in the way of production and profits.

Shell's corporate spokesman, J.H. Walter called the unions joint H&S committee 'another attempt at featherbedding since the workers could then decide how long they could safely work in the refineries and chemical plants.

Moreover, Shell stated that health & safety was none of the oil workers' business: "We are legally responsible for the health and safety of Shell employees in the workplace and this responsibility cannot be shared". The truth was the oil companies didn't want to give up control in this area.

From 1963-1969, Shell used caged canaries as 'safety devices' at their Houston chemical plant.(true story, no joke!) The canary's job was to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. If the canary died, it was time for the workers to leave. Shell went through a lot of canaries, OCAW was claiming by the time the canary died, the workers would already have been exposed.

The union was also seeking the right to inspect company records and financial reports of the pension funds Shell administered and to be able to grieve the company's arbitrary actions with regard to disability pensions. (The union suspected Shell's pension fund was under funded.) One Anacortes member who worked for Shell for 17 years, was certified by two doctors as being disabled, yet Shell wouldn't allow him disabled benefits even though he met the 15 year employment requirement. For the union, this was an item that needed to be addressed.

The International Representative assigned locally was Virgil Coragliotti, with Representative Tom Burkholder assisting on occasion. Don Yates was the Shell unit chairman and the committee members were Gil Nuessen, Wes Shull, F. D. Ferguson, Bob Melton Sr. Jerry Vrooman was the Local President and Jim Burgess was the financial secretary.

Picket pay was $25 a week. The 1-591 union brothers at General Chemical and Texaco assessed their monthly dues to help support the Shell members. Financial support was also received regularly from the Ferndale OCAW 1-590 local. Because Shell Oil’s daily production was unaffected and they didn’t lose any profits during the strike, the strikers received unemployment benefits under what was then known as the ‘dark plant rule’. Not surprising, Shell Oil later lobbied to get that section of the unemployment law changed.

                   

About a week before the strike Snelsons’ had contracted with Shell to do maintenance work on a recently shutdown furnace. Their plan was to use the Boilermakers union, Local 104 out of Seattle. OCAW had gotten wind of it and a group of about 60 Shell brothers were on site waiting for the 14 building trades members when they attempted to cross the picket line, being led through by Bill Snelson. Several Shell picketers became so upset that they turned over both of Snelsons’ trucks and trailers. At the same time, someone smashed out Snelson's rear window. Out of fear, Snelson romped on the gas throwing John Garner, who was standing in front of him, onto the hood of his car. Garner was able to roll off as Snelson bolted on through. The Sheriff was immediately called.

Fred Nelson, Bob Melton and Charlie Pyburn were identified as the lead individuals involved and were fired. Later, after two days in court, Judge Deierlein had Melton and Pyburn jailed, then sharply criticized Shell management for not maintaining better communications with the union and local law enforcement officials in trying to prevent emotional blow-ups. Later Snelson took OCAW 1-591 to court and won $6700 for the damage done to his vehicles. Shell also fired Virgil Avey for breaking windsphrlds with his picket sign. While the other three were unable to get their jobs back, Fred Nelson was eventually rehired. Old time Union members refer to this incidence as the "Day of the Windstorm."

OCAW also had trouble with the Teamster's Union from Seattle. The same teamster leadership that was scabbing on the United Farm Workers, had ordered their drivers to disregard the picket line established by OCAW. And since there was an injunction limiting the number of pickets to two per gate, the union was unable to do much about the Teamsters pushing through with their trucks.

To keep in the health and safety issue in front of the public, OCAW had teams that traveled the northwest speaking to the news media and public about the need for work place safety. Shell later admitted the mobile speakers bureaus were very effective.

Finally, Shell, in the face of public pressure, bargained a compromised health and safety clause as well as meeting the union's demand allowing the pension fund to be reviewed and grieved if necessary. On June 1st the strike was officially ended.