Originally Posted on Chron.com.
Union members picketed outside the Dow chemical plant in Deer Park Wednesday as a company lockout entered its third day with no clear end in site.
Dow called a lockout – the company equivalent of strike – at 2 p.m. Monday as way to exert more pressure on the union during labor contract talks. About 230 members of the United Steelworkers union are barred from working until the company ends the lockout or the two sides reach a new labor agreement.
Both sides appear to be willing to go back to the bargaining table but there isn’t a date set yet to resume negotiators. It’s not clear yet if the lockout would end even if contract talks resume.
The company is apparently using a small staff of salaried workers to keep the plant running.
“Dow’s Deer Park site is operating safely and reliably without the United Steelworkers,” a Dow spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are operating the site with our contingent workforce, comprised mostly of highly trained technical experts within the site. Production is at normal and safe operations, just as our neighbors, employees and customers expect of us,”
The plant produces chemicals used in adhesives and sealants, automotive coatings, acrylic plastics, personal care products and water purification chemicals.
In the short term, the lockout is not expected to significantly affect the markets for those specialty chemicals, but it could in the long term if the labor dispute drags on, according to the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie.
Meanwhile, workers are taking shifts to picket outside the Deer Park plant as they await an end to a lockout.
Union members have twice voted overwhelming to reject company proposals on a new labor contract, according to the union. The union added that the company also has rejected its counteroffers that move closer to a compromise.
The union has at least three sticking points: safety concerns due to understaffing, excessive overtime and how the company handles an arbitration system to settle labor grievances, said Ben Lilienfeld, subdistrict director for USW based in Texas.
Lilienfeld said the plant has for years suffered from understaffing that could lead to fatigue and safety issues. On an average week an employee typically works about 30 percent overtime hours, he said, but the company is refusing to hire more workers to prevent mandatory overtime.
Dow has offered to redistribute its overtime system but is is not addressing the underlying understaffing problem, he said.
Additionally the company proposal would increase wages by an average of 1.8 percent per a year, according to the union. That compares to other chemical and refinery workers in the region who have bargained for 3.5 percent to 4 percent wage increases annually, according to USW.
“(Dow’s) wage proposal barely keeps up with the cost of living and really is far below their peers here in Houston and on the Ship Channel,” Lilienfeld of USW said.
The union also wants the company to adhere a standard arbitration system used to resolve labor disputes outside of litigation. The union accused Dow of trying to limit which grievances can be settled this way and undermining the entire conflict resolution system.
In a statement, Dow declined to comment on the arbitration system. . The company acknowledged that some workers put in more overtime than others, but a spokeswoman said Dow has proposed a new overtime system to redistribute hours and “help maximize the safe operation of the facility.”
The spokeswoman also said that workers wages “are in the upper quartile of pay within the local chemical industry. Our proposed increase is in line with Dow’s pay practices across North America and keeps us competitive in the local labor market.”
The United Steelworkers represents 850,000 workers in North America spread across chemicals, rubber, metal, paper, oil refining, service and public sectors. Separate from the Deer Park Dow negotiations, USW also bargains with a national group of energy and chemical companies led by Shell Oil Co. to establish a labor contract pattern that affects 30,000 chemical, refinery and pipeline workers.
Dow Inc. spun off from DowDupont April 1.