Pet coke transport workers vote to join ILWU

jba_truck_6JBA Transport workers who haul petroleum coke from California oil refineries to storage facilities and docks voted overwhelmingly to join the ILWU on September 1.

Teamster-company deal rejected

In the same vote, workers soundly rejected a representation bid from the Teamsters Union that managed to win only 2 votes from the 23 JBA employees, despite aggressive campaigning that came with obvious management support.

“We wanted a strong, independent union that would give us a voice – not a union that was already in bed with the company,” said longtime JBA driver Humberto Alvarez.

Nearly all the drivers work out of JBA’s headquarters in Wilmington, CA. Two drivers who service Bay Area refineries are based in Pittsburgh, CA.

Performing a vital task

The JBA workers perform a vital task by removing petroleum coke – a by-product of the oil-refining process that constantly accumulates inside refineries when crude oil is “cracked” into a wide range of products, from gasoline and other fuels to tar for paving roads.

A different kind of Coke

Petroleum coke is a hard, grey material that contains much more carbon than coal. JBA drivers haul away this “pet coke” using a fleet of 29 tractors and 75 double-trailers that deliver the material to different facilities – including the massive Oxbow terminal on Pier G at the Port of Long Beach which is staffed by ILWU members. The Oxbow workers store and manage millions of tons of coke each year that is eventually loaded by longshore workers onto bulk carrier vessels heading for Asia where most of the carbon-rich material is burned to fuel power plants and cement kilns, or used as a critical additive for making iron and steel.

Supply chain support

A group of 58 Oxbow workers went through their own struggle to join the ILWU back in 2005 when they voted to join Local 13’s Allied Division. Since then they have successfully negotiated contracts with Oxbow – privately owned by billionaire William Koch who controls much of America’s pet coke industry.

Solidarity makes a difference

“We already knew the guys at JBA because they come here all the time,” said Steve Cannon who’s worked at Oxbow for more than a decade. “It was natural for us to help them out because we were once in their shoes, before we organized to join the ILWU.”

JBA workers responded positively to advice from Oxbow workers. “They told us what to expect from management when it was crunch time just before the vote, and their predictions were 100% accurate,” said JBA driver Humberto Alvarez.

Begging for one more chance

One of the predictions was an 11th hour appeal by management for “just one more chance to make things right.” Such pleas are common anti-union tactics that management uses to sway workers in the final days on a union organizing campaign – usually with an emotional appeal, often include “tears” shed by sobbing executives who appears sincere, full of remorse for past “mistakes,” willing to “listen” and offering heartfelt promises to “make things right” – if the union isn’t involved.

Not fooled by tears

With workers primed to expect just such a performance, few were fooled when JBA official met with workers to beg for “one more chance” without the ILWU. Instead of falling for the tearful routine, JBA workers stuck with their plan and voted overwhelmingly to join the ILWU.

No to the company union

A simultaneous bid by the Teamsters Union to win the union election fizzled badly despite a show featuring big Teamster trucks with giant billboards, lots of Teamster jackets and dozens of flyers. The cozy relationship between company managers who invited the Teamsters to get involved after workers expressed support for the ILWU, doomed that effort in the eyes of most workers.

“It was obvious to everyone that the Teamsters were the company’s union, and we didn’t want that,” said JBA driver John Soto.

Getting a good contract

“Now it’s all about helping these workers get a good first contract,” said ILWU Vice President (Mainland) Ray Familathe, who oversees the ILWU’s organizing campaigns. Familathe complimented the workers for their unity and determination to join the ILWU, despite many obstacles that were thrown into their path.

“It’s always a struggle to get this far, but these guys pulled together and got it done,” he said. Familathe noted that JBA has provided transportation services to the petroleum industry for over 30 years, and said their parent company, Bragg, is a successful operation with union contracts that cover many employees.

“Everyone at our end is prepared and ready to do their part, so we’re looking forward to negotiating a faircontract with JBA,” said Familathe.

Issues of concern

Some of the concerns that led JBA drivers to join the ILWU include a lack of respect, scheduling problems, unfair work distribution, long and sometime unpaid wait times, and the use of independent subcontractors.

“There are problems at JBA that need to be fixed, but all of us feel better now that we have a union,” said Angel Jauregui. “Having support from ILWU union brothers at Oxbow and others around the harbor area is really important to us. We’re glad to be part of the ILWU.”

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