HOUSTON (Reuters) - Union and oil company negotiators began talks on Wednesday for a new nationwide contract covering hourly workers at 63 U.S. refineries that account for 64 percent of national refining capacity, according to a union spokeswoman.
The current three-year agreement between the United Steelworkers union (USW) and oil companies is set to expire on Feb. 1.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc is leading the talks on behalf of companies ranging from supermajors such as Exxon Mobil Corp and BP Plc to smaller companies such as HollyFrontier Corp and Delek.
USW International Vice President Gary Beevers will be across the negotiating table on behalf of hourly workers along with the union's Administrative Vice President Tom Conway.
The Steelworkers are seeking annual pay raises double what was gained in the last agreement. The union also wants work given to non-union contractors to go to its members, a tighter policy to prevent fatigue and reductions in members' out-of-pocket payments for health care.
A Shell spokesman declined to discuss negotiations in detail.
"We are optimistic that a mutually satisfactory agreement can be negotiated with the USW," said Shell spokesman Ray Fisher.
The last national refinery workers’ strike was in 1980.
"I’m going into this round of bargaining like I have every single one, with the hopes that we're going to come out with a contract that's mutually agreeable and beneficial to all the parties,” Beevers said in an interview before the start of negotiations. "If we don't get there, our members are mobilized."
Oil companies have prepared for a possible work stoppage by training managers and non-union workers to take over refinery operations if Steelworkers walk off jobs beginning Feb. 1. Refiners have also placed trailers on the grounds of their refineries for replacement workers to stay in.
Beevers said the union's 30,000 oil industry workers seem more prepared conflict with the industry.
"The membership of this union is more mobilized and ready for a fight in my history in this position,” he said. Beevers has led the USW’s National Oil Bargaining Program for nine years.
Starting pay for a USW member at a U.S. refinery is about $37.50 an hour, according to the union.
The agreement being negotiated sets the floor on pay, benefits and other issues for refinery workers across the United States.
Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Terry Wade