May 12, 2022

UK: Striking workers at Fawley Oil Refinery decry poor conditions and low pay

Around 100 workers at the Fawley oil refinery in Southampton, England staged their second one-day stoppage on Monday with another 24-hour strike scheduled for May 6.

Workers on the picket line at Fawley Oil Refinery (WSWS Media)

Unite members are employed by contractors for ExxonMobil, which owns the refinery, the UK’s largest, supplying a sixth of all petrol to garages and a fifth of all airline fuel used at national scale.

Refinery workers rejected an insulting 2.5% wage offer from Trant Engineering Ltd, Veolia Services and Altrad Services. Defined as key workers during the pandemic – in recognition of their essential role – contractor employees have been denied occupational disease compensation unlike those employed directly by ExxonMobil.

Monday’s picket saw another strong turnout. About 80 picketers gathered at the roundabout near the refinery gates, supported by residents and other workers who refused to cross in solidarity.

ExxonMobil posted a fourth quarter profit of $8.87bn (£6.3bn) in February, with profits above pre-pandemic levels. According to Reuters, “Oil and gas production, Exxon’s largest business, posted operating profit of $6.1 billion, the highest in two years. Profits benefited from an 80% increase in oil prices and the doubling of natural gas prices compared to 2020.”

The Fawley Oil Refinery (WSWS Media)

the World Socialist Website spoke to striking refinery workers who explained the background to their dispute and its broader scope. Their identities have been concealed to protect against victimization.

Picketer No 1 said: “We have changed our shift to a four day shift, four days off, 12 hours [pattern], so we lost overtime pay. They were supposed to give us a raise, but they refused to give us anything. We’re supposed to get a raise every two years, so we went to them for things like sick pay and they turned it all down.

“There was no thanks or anything for working through the pandemic. We’ve had quite a few colleagues who contracted COVID because we were working too many hours. We were doing four-on, four-off and we were overworking ourselves. People were getting sick all the time, but rather than closing the refinery, they kept it going, even though they were storing oils and fuels in ships because they had too much. They didn’t need to be open all the time – they kept it open for cash. As simple as that.

“Unite supported what we are doing here, but that’s probably because the minimum they offered is 2.5% and after inflation it doesn’t follow. If they offer 5% we might be happy with that, but that’s because what they have [already] offered is so low. I believe 100% that there should be a united strike with workers across the country. Because you can’t just represent one group and say you only got 2% or 5%, and another group gets the same thing and says we’re not going to do anything about it. It should be nationwide.

“Unite only voted here because it’s the biggest and will get the most attention. It’s a bit of a publicity stunt, isn’t it? The problem is that companies are still reaping the benefits of people who work for them. They pay minimum wage, or not minimum wage in our situation, but less than they should pay, while they reap the benefits. It’s sad, but it’s the reality of work for a company that earns billions a year.

Picketer No 2 said: “We are here because we need a pay rise and they have offered us a lousy one and we also want sick pay.

“For two years, we were told that we had to keep the place open. We all had to change our shifts to four days on, four days off, coming on the weekends. There was also no time out offered. We really did them a favor. They didn’t want to send us home on leave, they said, ‘Oh, we need your help’, so we helped them. Now they just gave us this pathetic pay raise.

“With sick pay also, all the managers are out and they are all getting sick pay, especially with COVID. When one of us gets COVID they only give you £90 a week. But when managers are in on the act, they get full sick pay.

Picket No. 3 said: “Before, we just talked and did nothing like that. But now it’s time to start fighting for our rights because we really run this place. It’s thanks to us, and yet they don’t want to give us anything and treat us as if we were nothing. I think we did a very good job and hopefully we will raise the salary until we get what we want.

These sentiments express a broader sense of defiance among workers and their determination to overcome the inequalities that have fueled corporate profits. The pandemic has been a game-changer, with key workers recognizing their enormous social power – refinery workers literally power the whole country, as well as their fellow oil and gas workers around the world.

The entrance to the Fawley refinery (WSWS Media)

It is precisely for this reason that the strike at Fawley was met with an almost complete media blackout. Unite devoted negligible coverage to the dispute. It has not produced a press release since March 29, before the strike began. He posted a symbolic message on his nationwide Twitter page during the final one-day shutdown on Monday.

Any escalation of the ExxonMobil dispute would attract other oil refinery contractors whose labor faces similar substandard conditions. Veolia workers hired by Essar Oil UK at the country’s second-largest oil refinery at Stanlow, Ellesmere Port, northwest England, are voted separately by Unite for strike action over a wage offer of 3.5%, despite inflation having climbed to 6% CPI and 9% RPI. The Unite press release on the ballot at Stanlow makes no reference to the struggle of their colleagues at Fawley.

Fawley refinery workers should not accept the limits placed on their dispute by Unite, which is isolating Fawley strikers to set the stage for a below-inflation wage deal. Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham follows a well-worn script that begins with hypocritical statements against “Filthy Rich” employers and ends with justifications for a betrayal deal. Last year, at the Stanlow oil refinery, Unite canceled a huge strike mandate by 400 workers, paving the way for a de facto pay-cut agreement that undermined the pension scheme.

As the WSWS explained: “In every dispute for higher wages and decent conditions, workers are in conflict not only with employers but also with their corporate partners in the union bureaucracy. The way forward is for workers to organize themselves into organizations they can democratically control and operate, rank-and-file committees, independent of the union. Contractors from Trant Engineering Limited, Veolia Services and Altrad Services represent approximately one third of the contractors employed at the Fawley refinery. A rank-and-file committee would allow them to make contact with other contractors and those directly employed by Exxon, as well as workers at six other British oil refineries, in order to mount a joint offensive.