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Union Says Chevron Fired Several Richmond Refinery Workers Who Went on Strike

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Chevron plant process head operator BK White (center) walks the picket line with Denny Khamphanthong and refinery employees and supporters in front of Gate 14 at the Richmond refinery on April 7, 2022, to protest for worker safety and higher pay. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Chevron has fired five workers who went on strike at the oil giant’s Richmond refinery last spring, according to their union. The apparent termination of United Steelworkers Local 5 employees at one of the West Coast’s major oil refining facilities prompted the union to file complaints with federal labor regulators.

The workers Chevron fired — two during the walkout and three in the months that followed — were mostly safety operators at the refinery who played leadership roles in the strike, according to union president Tracy Scott.

Strikers hold placards that feature words "strike" and "Chevron"
Striking Chevron refinery union workers hold signs as they picket outside the Chevron refinery on March 21, 2022, in Richmond. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The firings “were unjust,” Scott said.

One of those fired was B.K. White, a top union negotiator who became the face of the labor action and had worked at the refinery for nearly three decades.

“You could just tell it was retaliatory or punitive in nature,” said White, vice president of USW Local 5. “It appears there’s a concerted effort to break the union.”

In a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the union alleges that Chevron ordered its members to train contractors to do union-covered work and then punished them for their labor activities. The NLRB has deferred action on the Local 5’s unfair labor practice charges pending arbitration of a grievance the union had already filed with the company.

News of the firings comes months after a 10-week-long strike by hundreds of USW workers. It was the first walkout at Chevron’s Richmond refinery in 40 years.

The marathon labor action ended up delivering only modest gains to workers. The contract, approved by a slim majority of union members, gave a small bump in pay and medical benefits to refinery employees who went without paychecks for more than two months.

“You were just asking for a little dignity and little relief from a corporation that’s raking in billions of dollars and not sharing it with its workers but sharing it with their board of directors or their stockholders on Wall Street,” White said.

Chevron earned $35.5 billion last year, the company said in its recent fourth-quarter earnings report (PDF). In a report to shareholders last year, the company reported that the total 2021 compensation for CEO Michael Wirth was $37.8 million (PDF).

White says when he and his members returned to work in late spring, Chevron managers told them to leave the labor dispute behind and work together. But replacement employees brought in during the strike remained at the refinery. Some were living at the facility, according to the union.

White says he was fired in October after working for 29 years at the Richmond refinery.

“For me to believe such a heinous company would treat me any other way, I would be the fool to be surprised,” White said in an interview.

“I understood that taking a position and fighting such a big company, there would be repercussions. I wasn’t happy with it, but I’ve never been a victim a day in my life,” he said. “I willfully went in to represent my people. I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I didn’t think I did anything worthy of termination. Big corporations like that don’t like being challenged.”

A Chevron representative rejected claims that the company fired workers as an act of revenge.

“Chevron does not retaliate against or tolerate any retaliation against employees for striking or for engaging in any protected union activity,” company spokesperson Brian Hubinger said in an emailed statement.

“Employees found to be engaging in behavior that violates policies or laws are subject to investigation and disciplinary action, including termination,” Hubinger said. “Chevron does not discuss the details of individual personnel issues.”

An older Latino man in a blue shirt holds a strike placard as he talks to a striker, a man in a black shirt with a cap on.
Then-Richmond City Council member (and current mayor) Eduardo Martinez (left) talks with Chevron employee BK White during a strike in front of Gate 14 at the Richmond refinery on April 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Hubinger noted that the refinery is the largest employer in Richmond and a “significant provider of union jobs.” He said the company respects the rights of employees to express their views lawfully and that includes the right to strike.

Earlier this month, White began working as public policy director for Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez, a longtime Chevron critic. Martinez believes White can help Richmond move away from oil and move refining employees into the green economy, according to the mayor’s chief of staff.

“Who better to help us lead ‘just transition’ work and support union labor and workforce development in Richmond — the mayor’s top priorities — than him,” said Shiva Mishek, who, along with Martinez, is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

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