Obama Steering Clear of U.S. Oil Strike With Supply Surging

Don’t count on President Barack Obama to end the biggest U.S. oil workers’ strike since 1980, say labor attorneys, including a former member of the federal board that protects employees’ rights to organize.

With gasoline near a six-year low and oil close to $50 a barrel, Obama has little economic incentive to step into a battle between the United Steelworkers union and the oil companies that employ its members, said Michael Belzer, an associate professor of industrial relations at Wayne State University in Detroit. The strike would need to spread to half of U.S. refineries before the White House intervened, according to labor attorney John Raudabaugh.

“We’re not, by any kind of standard, at the point yet where presidential intervention would be warranted,” Raudabaugh, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida, and a former National Labor Relations Board member, said by phone Wednesday. “We’re just not there yet.”

The United Steelworkers began a strike at seven U.S. oil refineries on Feb. 1 after contract negotiations with Royal Dutch Shell Plc, bargaining on behalf of oil companies including Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp., fell apart. Union members at two BP Plc sites joined a week later. The plants together account for 13 percent of U.S. refining capacity.

Last Intervention

“A national emergency would have to be at stake before you see a government intervention,” Belzer said by phone Feb. 5. “And I just can’t see how a national emergency would be created with oil prices as low as they are. It’s not like there has been a big reduction in gasoline availability.”

Gasoline stockpiles in the U.S. are at the highest level in four years, and U.S. benchmark oil, West Texas Intermediate, averaged $47.33 a barrel in January, the lowest since February 2009. Futures for March delivery climbed $2.37, or 4.9 percent, on Thursday to settle at $51.21 a barrel on the New York Mercantile.

The last major intervention of the U.S. government in union negotiations came in 2002, when President George W. Bush, a Republican, used the federal Taft-Hartley Act to obtain a court injunction ending a 10-day lockout of union workers at ports along the U.S. West Coast.

As for the oil workers’ strike, the White House has said it’s “monitoring” the negotiations between the United Steelworkers and Shell. It urges “labor and management to resolve their differences using the time-tested process of collective bargaining,” Frank Benenati, a White House spokesman, said by e-mail Feb. 5.

NLRB Complaints

The United Steelworkers union has meanwhile filed several complaints with the NLRB against refiners including Tesoro Corp. and Marathon Petroleum Co.

In the complaints filed against Tesoro at its Carson refinery in Southern California, the union listed several allegations including “unilateral changes” made to its workers’ contract, “concerted activities” such as retaliation and refusal to bargain.

“These charges will be investigated,” Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the board in Washington, said by phone Feb. 6.

Charges are filed to regional NLRB directors who determine which require formal action, the agency’s website shows. Those may be heard by administrative law judges who can either dismiss them or order a “cease and desist” from unfair labor practices committed.

Grievance Strategy

Raudabaugh described the grievances as a typical strategy of unions that have gone on strike, because a favorable ruling from the board would protect workers from losing their jobs during a work stoppage and may entitle them to some back pay.

“They’re going to try to get as many unfair labor practice charges in front of NLRB as they can to see what sticks,” F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, who served as a special assistant in the U.S. Department of Labor from 2008 to 2009, said by phone. “They’ll throw the kitchen sink at it knowing the vast majority of charges can’t be substantiated or will be thrown out.”

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