NEW YORK (Reuters) - The last time U.S. oil workers went on strike in support of a nationwide pact, Jimmy Carter was president and KC and the Sunshine Band flew high in the Billboard chart with “Please Don’t Go.”
As oil companies prepare to cope with strikes at nine U.S. refineries and chemical plants, accounting for about 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity, they can look to distant lessons from the three-month-long strike that started on Jan. 8, 1980.
Then, plants continued to operate despite widespread picket lines by union members fighting for improved pay and benefits such as dental coverage.
Much has changed in the industry over 35 years, but the companies are expected to use some of the same tactics as their counterparts in 1980, including calling on managers to don overalls and fill in for workers.
In 1980, the companies also relied upon retired workers and people from other plants to run the refineries where strikes occurred, recalled Bob Landry, a retired refinery worker in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Looking back now, we all have all our teeth when we retire. It was a good thing, you have to look at the long run,” he said.
On Sunday, union workers took to picket lines after the United Steelworkers union (USW) said Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L), the lead industry negotiator, halted talks over pay and conditions.
Shell activated a strike contingency plan at its sprawling joint venture refinery and chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, to keep operating normally, and other companies, like Tesoro Corp TSO.N sprung into action at their own plants.
Refinery workers in 1980 were represented by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW).
Since then, the landscape has changed and unions have become less influential: many refineries have shutdown as oil production and processing trends in the U.S. have shifted. Others have expanded to become more efficient processors of crude. Free trade deals have loosened unions’ grip.
After a refinery’s union membership voted in favor of the strike, 24-hour pickets were set up immediately, according to Donald Erlandson, who researched past strikes for a union local on the West Coast.
”Picket pay was $25 a week,“ he wrote. “A comprehensive picket shift schedule was put together. The brothers at Allied Chemical assessed their dues an extra $20 a week to help support the effort.”
At the end of the strike, the union won a 5 percent pay raise nationally, plus an additional 52 cents for the first year with a 10.5 percent pay raise the second year. And they got their first dental plan.
There have been other local work stoppages since then, and companies also came to the brink of strike as recently as 2012.
Union workers at Tesoro Corp voted to allow a strike in the wake of difficult negotiations at four of its plants in May 2012.
At the time, Tesoro CEO Greg Goff said its 166,000 barrel per day San Francisco Bay refinery in Martinez, California, would temporarily stop production but continue as a refined products terminal while replacement workers were trained.
The refinery union locals ultimately reached agreements with the company, so the plans weren’t tested.
Canadian firm Husky Energy (HSE.TO), where employees went on strike, did replace hourly workers with managers and other replacements. That plant also eventually reached an agreement with workers, and they returned.
This time, Tesoro said it would continue operating its refineries through the strike, with the exception of its Martinez plant, which it said it would shut because maintenance work is currently underway.
Reporting By Jessica Resnick-Ault; editing by Stuart Grudgings