In Senate, new DFL majority puts refinery safety atop to-do list

Union tradespeople packed the first committee hearing on Senate File 10. (photo courtesy LIUNA MN)

Refinery safety is back on the agenda at the Minnesota Capitol.

Union tradespeople helped pack the Senate Labor Committee’s hearing Jan. 12, when members heard public testimony on a bill that would require registered apprenticeship training for workers performing certain jobs in the state’s two petroleum refineries.

“In my career it was easy to spot the difference between workers who were trained in registered apprenticeship programs and those who were not,” LIUNA member Ben Weideman told senators.

“They understand what their specific duties are, they know how to ask questions and they contribute to a safe and productive culture of quality work, day after day.”

Weideman, a former health and safety manager for a large contractor that specializes in hazardous facilities, told lawmakers that petroleum refineries warrant unique public scrutiny because the safety risks there are exponential.

“Refineries are not a normal construction site,” he said. “It’s potentially dangerous for the individual workers, their co-workers, the surrounding community and the environment. Any refinery moving away from contractors that require and promote registered apprenticeship is taking a step backward from the progress we’ve made in the workplace throughout my career.”

That’s exactly what workers say is happening at the refinery in St. Paul Park, where union members have accused Marathon Oil of replacing local, highly trained tradespeople with non-union workers from other states.

The dispute came to a head in early 2021, when Marathon locked out members of Teamsters Local 120 for nearly five months, after union members refused to accept language that would have allowed the refinery to outsource up to 50 jobs.

At the same time, Marathon began severing ties with local contractors that had regularly provided maintenance and other services at the facility. Building Trades unions erected banners outside the refinery, warning that local laborers, pipefitters and other tradespeople familiar with the refinery had been replaced with subcontractors from across the country.

Inside the refinery, Teamsters noticed the difference.

Dean Benson, a vacancy relief officer at the facility and chief steward for Local 120, told senators he worked alongside subcontractors who didn’t know how to use critical safety equipment like a self-contained breathing apparatus. He knew they were from out of state, Benson said, when he watched the subcontractors struggle to figure out how Minnesota fire hydrants work.

(photo courtesy Steamfitters Pipefitters Local 455)

“These guys don’t know what they don’t know, and that’s dangerous in a place like the St. Paul Park refinery,” Benson said.

The growing chorus of concerns from workers like Benson and residents of St. Paul Park and surrounding communities quickly reached lawmakers like Karla Bigham, who carried the apprenticeship requirement two years ago while serving in the Senate.

A companion measure passed the House, and Bigham’s Senate bill briefly made it into a larger package of legislation with bipartisan support. But in the 2021 session’s waning hours, Republican leaders abruptly withdrew their support, killing the measure.

With DFLers now in the Senate majority, it stands a good chance of passing, according to lead author Sen. Judy Seeberger, who has succeeded Bigham, now a Washington County commissioner, in Senate District 41, which includes St. Paul Park.

“When I was campaigning for office, I got the message loud and clear that this was something urgently needed to ensure workers in the refinery and the communities around the refinery were as safe as possible,” Seeberger said.

“Minnesota’s registered apprenticeship programs are the gold standard when it comes to training,” she added. “When we’re talking about oil refineries, which are such dangerous environments to work in, we should expect nothing less than the most experienced, skilled and safe workers in those facilities.”

Seeberger’s bill, Senate File 10, passed out of the Labor Committee Jan. 12, but representatives of Big Oil did their best to derail it. The American Petroleum Institute’s Lynn Granger warned Seeberger’s bill “is not about safety” but, rather, “the government inserting itself in the hiring practices of the private sector.”

Commissioner Bigham, who also testified at the hearing, wasn’t buying it. She noted that other states where Marathon operates refineries have apprenticeship requirements on the books.

“This legislation does not require refineries to hire union,” Bigham said. “There’s nothing that stops Marathon or any other refinery in the state from doing their own apprenticeship program.”


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