This is part of a series highlighting the efforts of organized labor and featured in Labor 411’s print directories. Click here to order your copy and support Labor 411!
By Oren Peleg
When California Senate Bill 54, a refinery work safety law proposing sweeping changes in the state’s refineries, passed in November of 2016, it marked the end of a long fight taken up by the state’s building trades. For IBEW 11 organizers, the fight was just beginning.
With SB 54’s reforms calling for onsite maintenance and construction workers that meet mandated skill and training requirements, many formerly non-union contract workers at Southern California refineries need proper certification to continue working with contractors who are signatories on the bill. Who are they turning to?
“We’ve always been organizing at the refineries, talking to workers and telling them about the benefits of union membership,” Local 11 business manager Joel Barton said recently. “Our pitch is now stronger than ever and we’re churning out and incorporating more state certified electricians than ever before by giving them the proper training.”
With more and more refinery workers electing to become unionized, the new IBEW 11 members are seeing increased wages, retirement packages and job protections they long lacked. It’s also helping localize the workforce, as non-union contractors often exploited the lack of oversight by hiring out-of-town workers from Southern states. In the mid-2000s, non-local hiring reached upwards of 80-percent, which included workers with H-1B visas.
“The result of this,” Barton said, “is that we’re bringing jobs back to the local community. These guys can buy homes and invest locally.”
Improving safety conditions at the refineries is another point of emphasis, according to Barton.
“The refineries are safer than they’ve ever been with a better-trained workforce dealing with the hazardous materials out on the jobsite,” he said. “People living around the areas have gotten more cognizant of that and even wanted to shut them down in the past. So having a better workforce is alleviating some of those concerns, making the relationship between contractors and the community better, too.”
He added: “There are benefits from so many sides to this. It’s all a huge victory.”