FEATURE Locked Out On Labor Day BY JACOB BERNSTEIN Company officials at Crown Central Petroleums Pasadena refinery probably didn’t anticipate what awaited them when they locked out 251 union workers nineteen .months ago. At first stunned by the company action, the union has since built alliances with friends it didn’t know it had before the lockout began, and the company is now facing three major lawsuits as well as a consumer boycott t stake are the 251 jobs, but also much more. A year and a half from now, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union will begin negotiations that will set the bargaining pattern for some 325 new contracts and affect roughly 30,000 workers across the country. Oil companies nationwide are watching the Crown dispute with proprietary interest. And the union is equally concerned about the Crown strike. “If we are going to allow any pissant oil company to get away with this and to do it in the middle of the [Houston] Ship Channel, what are we inviting?” asked Richard Leonard, who is coordinating OCAW’s national drive against Maryland-based Crown. “None of us wants to head into the next oil negotiations with this stinking up the place.” In this age of petroleum conglomerates, Crown is a bit player with a rich tradition. The company, founded in 1917, is publicly traded but majority-owned and run by the Rosenberg family, descendants of the founder of Amoco. It currently operates two refineries in Texas, and fourteen product terminals and 337 gas marts in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern United States. Despite the relatively small holdings, the company’s lockout has turned into one of the most litigious labor fights in Texas. The battle between Crown Central versus OCAW Local 4-227 and its aggressive International is extending the frontiers of a national anti-corporate campaign, as the OCAW finds it has many friends willing to help make an example of the company. The lockout began during the last round of contract negotiations, when both sides were bogged down over the company’s insistence on eliminating and then contracting out twenty-nine union jobs, without regard to employee seniority. Crown had already extracted similar concessions at its La Gloria refinery in Tyler, the only petrochemical facility in the East Texas town. “The moment you decide to accept layoffs outside of seniority you are no longer a union,” said Alvin Freeman, the Pasadena local’s bargaining representative and a twenty-nine-year employee at the refinery. Crown did little to endear itself to the negotiators when it included Freeman’s job among those to be eliminated. On February 5, 1996, after more than a month of bargaining, Crown negotiators at the Pasadena plant asked union bargainers if they intended to strike. When they answered “no,” the company called a recess. Thirty minutes later, management returned to the table with a surprise announcement: OCAW workers were being escorted out of the plant. Locked-out union members were replaced with managers and contract workers. During the whole operation, 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER Crown never stopped production. After the lockout, the company expanded its position, from laying off almost thirty workers to the elimination of over 100 positions, with those jobs to be filled instead by outside contractors or former Crown employees who would be stripped of their seniority. In the aftermath, despite more than a dozen meetings with federal mediator Dale Johnson, the two sides are still far apart. “We are no closer today than we were when they locked us out,” said Joe Campbell, secretary-treasurer for the local. The company justified the lockout by accusing the union of committing hundreds of acts of sabotage in the preceding months, supposedly forcing Crown to exile its labor force in order to save the refinery and ensure the safety of the community. The sabotage Crown described ranged from the merely mischievous to the potentially life-threatening. A list of 460 acts of vandalismincluding removed handrails, over-sprayed paint, and new pumps clogged with sandwas delivered to federal investigators, but Crown refuses to release its evidence of the alleged sabotage. “It’s the subject of a criminal investigation and cannot be released,” said Crown spokesman Joseph Coale. Industrial tampering at an energy-producing facility is a federal offense. In mid-March 1996, more than a month after Crown alleged that most of sabotage took place, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a probe into the charges. A year and a half later, the case remains open and the Bureau refuses to comment on its progress. In addition to enlisting the FBI, Crown offered a $20,000 reward for information on the sabotage. Yet despite a pool of more than 200 unemployed workers, some of whom should be aware of potentially damaging information, there have been no takers. Locked-out workers bristle at the accusations they endangered their colleagues and damaged property. They admit that some mischiefalthough not sanctioned by the unioncould have taken place, but they also argue that most of the “sabotage” was wearand-tear on Crown’s 30-year-old equipment. “What they consider was our sabotage, was just neglect,” said Phyllis Miller, a lockedout worker who did maintenance and pipe-fitting for the company and now works at the OCAW local. The company undercut its own argument that the lockout was AUGUST 29, 1997 THE BATTLE BETWEEN CROWN CENTRAL VERSUS OCAW LOCAL 4.227 AND ITS AGGRESSIVE INTERNATIONAL IS EXTENDING THE FRONTIERS OF A NATIONAL ANTI-CORPORATE CAMPAIGN, AS THE OCAW FINDS IT HAS MANY FRIENDS WILLING TO HELP MAKE AN EXAMPLE OF THE COMPANY.