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Local 877 in the 1980's
Updated On: Jan 10, 2014

To avoid the "union problems" of the past, the company decided to train the new hires in a different manner, keeping them away from the main stream workers as long as possible, and allow only select employees direct contact with the new employee. The company told these new employees of all the benefits that the company had bestowed upon them, no mention was made of the Union demands for these benefits or the battles that the Union and its members endured to get them. The only contact the union was allowed after almost 6 months of this "training", was about 1 hour to explain the Union, and request them to sign cards to join the union.

It didn't take long for the Arab Countries to start undercutting each other which caused the bottom to fall out of crude oil prices. When this happened the profits hoped to be gained from Shale Oil disappeared and the industry decided on a new tactic. Exxon was willing to get rid of Bayway and at the same time get rid of its Union problems. These became known as the "Black Cloud over Bayway years". The biggest Corporation in the world tried for over two decades to rid itself of Local 877 without success.

In 1981 the company told the Union of a "minor problem" with asbestosis. We were told it effected only a few of our members. The company tried to down play the severity of this problem, but the Union persisted and eventually was forced to call in NIOSH. The government did an independent survey and found that the Union's worst fears were realized. The problem was much more prevalent than the company had led us to believe, in 1985 when NIOSH's final report came out over 125 of our past and present members were affected by their exposure to asbestos while working in Bayway. After the NIOSH report the company was willing to settle with the Union and agreed to many of their demands regarding asbestosis.

The Union wanting to help our retired members voted to use our building fund money, to help finance the special medical exams required to file for compensation against the companies for our retired members. (The company agreed to pay for active members, but refused any assistance to those on retirement.) The results of Local 87Ts efforts were felt throughout the Corporation, all of the sites in Exxon USA became more aware of the dangers of this debilitating disease. The company enacted many new procedures, and safety precautions as a direct result of the findings at Bayway. In the 1980's a new tactic emerges, the September 1982 Newsletter, "At a meeting August 25, 1982 Plant Manager Jim Hook read a press release to the Executive Board announcing cutbacks in Marketing in the Northeast Region and reduction of Bayway crude runs to a One Train Operation." Isom and #1 Powerformer were shut down in May 1982. Mechanical Departments were merged, back downs and reassignments started. Then the Company announced that most of the 1982 Process Hiring Class was to be "Fired", one day before their six months were over. The Union put in a Class Action Suit calling it a layoff to try to get some rights for the people affected. The Union couldn't legally defend the group as they were not yet members of the Union. In May 1983 the Union won that the point was arbitratable. In 1984 the Arbitrator ruled that it was a layoff. There were back downs of Mechanics who bid from process jobs in 1980/1981 back into Process. The first of the special retirement packages, were to be offered shortly. In December 1982 this program was announced to begin in 1983, along with corresponding job changes, including a bidding program and forced reassignments. By March 1985 some 102 employees had signed up for these early retirement/separation programs. The people that remained were moved around to accommodate needs. All of these people kept their original wage rates, only due to the diligence and work done by the Union Executive Board in negotiations.

However, other losses occurred for us in contract bargaining during these turbulent times. Bidding rights were restricted, Departments were merged, starting rates were frozen and wage rate increases were minimal. Minor Maintenance by Process Employees was increased dramatically, Mechanical Craft flexibility was reintroduced. Over and over, the Bargaining Committees came back unable to recommend the packages. In 1984 the summary to the changes concludes... As unsatisfactory as the new Contract is to everyone, it does provide us with two more years of employment, and a chance to go back to the table again in 1986. Hopefully, the Economic and Political climate then will allow the workers at Bayway to receive a fair share of Exxon's profits. We feel that the recently concluded rebalancing agreement provided the companies with all the flexibility they needed to run the Refinery and Chemical Plant in this new economic environment. We thought the Companies agreed with us. Now, suddenly, the Manpower numbers that were agreed upon are no longer valid."

The East Side Chemical MEK Unit before it was dismantled and sent to Exxon's Southern Refineries

The company's attacks went on. Ron Madjeski then Acting President in 1985 says of that year, "We had just gone through major manpower reductions via back downs and a SPOSA and we thought we were in the clear when the Company told us they were going to shut down the East Side Chemical Plant (MEK Unit). It was like Hell. People were going to be hurt, jobs disappeared, and the rug was pulled out from under us. MEK had a record profits the year before. The people had been told to do the best you can and maybe we'll keep the Unit functioning ... it was gut wrenching."

In December of 1985 the Tank Car Cleaning Facility was closed on the West Side, and the work was reassigned to outside contractors. Then in May of 1986 another SPOSA program was announced, more members left the Unions ranks. The local dues base was down to an all-time low of 640 people.

In June of 1987 the Executive Board finished the negotiations around the surplus workers created by the shutdown of the MEK Unit. And the Union managed to avoid a layoff, people were Red Circled at their old rates when they moved positions, and the company agreed to limit the contractors to 140 for maintenance that year.

John Brandon was elected President in 1987. He remembers, "The turmoil put strain on the membership, which added more pressure on all the Executive Board Members. There was tensions among all the groups. I remember how hard it was to keep everyone in a job. The local started to take care of the individual social problems that arose from this steady pressure and turmoil. "Out of this came the union membership assistance program. The company of course with its normal manipulation tried to claim credit for all of these compassionate programs by starting their own EHAP program. Gus Zeeb, a board member in the 70s and 80s who was responsible for starting and setting up the union programs says it best, "The company had a knack for putting you between a rock and a hard place. I fought for years for a good joint union / management drug and alcohol program ... that we could monitor ourselves. Then one day the company showed up with a program and said take it or leave it. We had no choice, either reject it and people would continue to be fired or accept it so there would be something ... they bypassed the union and went to 'well meaning' people. The company tried to convince the membership that the union was the enemy and the company was the good guys.”

In January 1987 the companies told the Executive Board that it was their intent to implement a drug testing program. In its position paper January 1987 the Executive Board states, "The Union position is that the substance abuse employee is the victim of a disorder and should be offered opportunities to recover. Repeated offenses are not to be regarded as cause for increasingly severe penalties but as inevitable slips on the long road to recovery. Failure implies the need for more treatment, not more punishment."

Walt Blusewicz, Secretary Treasurer and Membership Assistance Chairman at the time recalls, "We were fortunate at that time to have several people in Exxon Medical that understood the problems relating to substance abuse, the Union was able to forestall the implementation of any broad based drug testing program. Testing was only for cause, and contained many safe guards for our members." This was a short lived minor victory for the Union, for in 1989 after the Valdez Oil Spill once again the company imposed their strict testing and compliance programs. The union, along with just about every other Exxon Union representing employees, went to the National Labor Relations Board and to the grievance and arbitration procedure to try to stop the company’s knee jerk response to Valdez.

The union internal strain showed up in the rapidly changing composition of the Executive Board during those years. First Russ Harris got sick and eventually resigned. In 1984 Stan Nowicki took over as President. He was reelected in 1985, only to fall to illness himself in 1987. Ron Madjeski took over for the remainder of his term and opted not to run in the next election. John Brandon who ran unopposed in 1987 didn't complete his term, Walter Blusewicz took over for the remaining 18 months. The next election, in December 1990, sees another new President, Ron Fonseca come into office.

Adding to this is the unprecedented move of former Executive Board members into management, first is Art Knapp, after losing his bid for re-election as Vice-President in the 1984 election he becomes management's asbestos expert in 1985. Then Al Bauer, groomed for the presidency by the "Old Guard", resigns after a short illness, shortly thereafter he turns up in an employee relations job. Stan Nowicki, takes a management contractor coordinator job, Gary Wall, takes a safety job in chemical plant management, and John Brandon goes into management as a trainer. This plus the strain of the "Black Cloud over Bayway" puts the union at a great disadvantage, there is distrust of Board Members, the constant question is, "Who will be the next to go into management?"

Starting in the mid-80's Management took full advantage of this, using General Patton's Credo of War; "The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his." It is used with West Point accuracy by management. During 1990 negotiations of an "Uprate Policy" the Unions asks all uprates to come down, Supervision shows them a list of the ex-Board members not coming down and they all refuse to follow the union request. The result is a watered down policy that is next to nothing.

The workforce itself was changing as rapidly as its leadership. Now most of the employees had been hired long after the Strike of 1964, many of the new hires had never been involved in any type of labor struggle. Many of them took uprate supervisor positions that the company offered as a bone. The Process Department, now consisting of many people forced on shift in rebalancing moves, looked for avenues of relief by moving to an EOWEO schedule. (Every Other Week End Off). Because of the fact that this schedule worked 12 hour shifts, 7 days out of 14 there was less contact between Process and Mechanical than ever before. (Of course the advantage was there was less contact with Supervision too.)

The attempts at uniting with other Exxon Independent Unions fizzled out. The contracts were passed despite the leaderships asking for a strike vote. Working with the OCA W was hampered by agreements, which moved the contract date further away from OCAW's. Attempts to bring in the Drivers at Domestic Trades, and the BESU people failed.

Then in 1989 came the infamous "Valdez Incident" in the April/May issue of the Newsletter was written, "From the moment that the ship grounded itself and started to 'leak' crude to the bay, there were reasons and allegations as to why it had occurred ... The Captain had an alleged drinking problem, and a non-qualified person was operating the ship ... Exxon blaming the Captain, suggests a new random drug and alcohol policy ...”

"Consumer and Environmental groups are asking people to boycott Exxon products ... It’s very difficult to tell someone that you work for Exxon because of the articles about the Company. Many people think that you are just like the Captain or Senior Management of the Corporation. Take heart folks, we aren't. We are better people on any given day of the week."

People gave at gate collections to environmental groups in Alaska to show that wage workers of Exxon give a dam. As for the companies big push for random drug testing the Local Officials met with other Exxon Union Officials to try to keep the upper Exxon Management from putting the blame on the workforce. They said "How quickly and how hard they will come down on a wage person when it was a management blunder."

But the 1990's were going to be even worse for the Bayway Teamsters. With the New Year there was the Arthur Kill Pipeline oil spill at Bayway. As Walter Blusewicz put it in his May 1990 Presidential Message, "The press jumped on it like it was the worst disaster since the sinking of the Titanic."

As for the cleanup, the Newsletter notes, "We don't have the time or the space here to do justice to the job our members, as well as the other wage people who work at Bayway, have done so far in the cleanup efforts ... A special note of thanks should go to the original 30 or so Members of the brand new Emergency Response Team who responded to the spill. Many of them worked 28 hours straight, then slept 5 to 6 hours and went out again. They were the first line of defense, they did a magnificent job.... Our contract bargaining starts in earnest in a few weeks. We hope those Exxon Managers who are so appreciative of our work today will still be appreciative at that time."

But as the Leadership started the negotiations it was in an atmosphere of gloom, and no sooner does the contract get ratified then a second spill occurs at the docks. "It lasted less than a minute. It was boomed in and cleaned up immediately. But, by now Bayway was under a microscope. News of the spill was flashed across TV screens all across the country. Every regulatory agency in existence jumped on the Bandwagon. Several members who worked on the docks were threatened with prosecution. Exxon company USA responded by announcing that all operations at Bayway and Bayonne docks would be suspended immediately until the operations there could be examined in detail."

Bayway went into the never ending turn-around. "No one did anything for months but come into work and sit there. We all thought the place was never going to start up again.” Walt Blusewicz, President during this time in a 1995 interview for this book.

Local 877 demonstration around the BOB during contract negotiations

Read more (Local 877 throughout the 1990's...)


 
 
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