What is really behind the lockout of nearly 200 Marathon refinery employees in St. Paul Park? Marathon appears to be seeking a backdoor to avoid accountability for industrial accidents, pollution and damage to the environment.
One of the main points of dispute in the lockout centers around Marathon’s ability to sub-contract jobs previously done by permanent well-trained employees. Generally, disputes over sub-contracting break down simply as job protection vs. money. In other words, the Union wants to keep their jobs and the company wants to save money by hiring cheaper less skilled labor. In St. Paul Park, however, Marathon’s motivation may be far more sinister.
Refinery jobs are incredibly dangerous. Something Marathon and its employees in St. Paul Park know all to well. In 2007, Marathon employee Nick Gunter was burned alive in a tank after an explosion occurred. He was 29 when he died. Incidents like what happened to Nick are not unique to St. Paul Park or rare in the refining industry.
According to the 2015 EHS article “A Deadly Industry”, at least 64 people died at refineries between 2005-2015. Its at least 64 because tracking incidents involving sub-contractors is difficult to impossible. According to EHS: “Oil refiners have increasingly contracted out some of their most dangerous jobs to companies that are classified elsewhere.”
Rather than addressing issues to make their industry safer, Marathon seems to be re-structuring their workforce in order to give themselves cover in the form of plausible deniability and a scapegoat (the sub-contracting company) when accidents happen. They can continue operating dangerously with less accountability when there is an incident.
In March of last year an employee of sub-contractor Turner Industries died in an industrial accident at the CITGO Charles Lake refinery in Vinton, LA. The focus of the coverage around the accident focused far more on Turner Industries than it did on the parent refinery company. Liability and OSHA oversight for the incident would also presumably fall primarily on Turner and not the parent company that hired Turner and runs the refinery.
According to several sources this “pull the curtain” game is already being played by Marathon in St. Paul Park. For over a year, the company appears to have been systematically replacing skilled contractors with sub-contractors that have lower standards. Many of the previous contractors maintained certified apprenticeship programs to ensure employees were highly qualified and safe on the job. Very few of the new sub-contractors maintain those programs.
For a case study on why Marathon is doing this, look no further than STARCON International. Multiple sources state that since Marathon brought STARCON into SPP, its safety record has been abysmal. To keep the veneer of safety going, Marathon reportedly cancelled STARCON’s contract and awarded it to a new cut-rate sub-contracting company. This new company appears to be hiring many of the same employees that previously worked under STARCON and its abysmal record. The new sub-contractor… (You guessed it) Turner Industries.
You see, by playing this sub-contracting game, Marathon will be able to “keep their hands clean” from some liability and accountability using the sub-contractor as a buffer. They will say STARCON was the bad actor, not Marathon. They will claim Marathon fired STARCON because Marathon is committed to safety. In reality, they are just changing the costumes on a rotating group of clown outfits that all appear to hire the same unskilled clowns.
Worse yet, the risk from these places isn’t just to the workers inside the gates. In October of 2020, the Oxford University Press published a study that found a statistically significant correlation between several types of cancer in communities and the communities’ proximity to an oil refinery. These accidents, these spills, these explosions don’t just harm the workers. They harm kids and families in the surrounding communities.
Marathon’s continuance of sub-contracting policies that result in accidents is abhorrent. For any other citizen, having a reckless disregard for human life that results in death is called Manslaughter. Our question: When the next accident happens, will Marathon be held to the same standard as the rest of us?
Here in MN, at least one legislator is planning to do something about this. State Sen. Karla Bigham, whose district includes the Marathon refinery, is proposing legislation to address the issue. Her proposal would require that sub-contractors at safety sensitive sites maintain a certified apprentice program to ensure a highly skilled workforce at these incredibly dangerous sites.
While this legislation won’t entirely fix the problem of bad corporate actors running refineries, it’s a start. And it needs to pass.
Companies like Marathon cannot be allowed to operate both unsafely and without accountability. No one should have a license to kill in our state.
(Pictured below credit EHS: Texas City Refinery Disaster)