Labor contracts affecting more than half of U.S. refining capacity expire this weekend, and leaders of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union warn the industry could experience its first nationwide strike since 1980.
''Obviously, we would prefer that the companies address our members' needs . . . And not force us to set strike procedures in motion, but we will do what we have to do," said spokesman Rod Rogers at union headquarters in Denver.Amoco Corp., which has taken the lead in this round of talks, has expressed optimism about negotiations but has said it would be ready for a walkout. "In the event of a strike, we would plan to operate," said Chicago- based Amoco spokesman Mike Thompson.
Both sides issued similarly stern statements in 1986 before settling on a new two-year contract. That pact, which expires Sunday for most of the union's 44,000 members, including about 12,000 in Texas, extended the labor peace that has characterized the 1980s oil slump.
Times are still bad in refining. The 1988 negotiations come at a time when the refining segment of the oil industry generally suffers from slim profit margins. "It's a lousy business," said consultant Bill Johnson of Houston-based Jofree Corp.
"I think everybody is going to be very touchy about raising operating costs in any way," agreed consultant Bob Bossung of John Yeager & Associates in Houston.
But many companies that own refineries also own petrochemical plants employing OCAW workers, and petrochemical plants recently have been enjoying much better margins than refineries, industry analysts said.
Director James Childs of the union's District 4, which encompasses Texas and Louisiana, argues that no matter how poorly one segment of the industry may be doing, oil companies "Seem to have a way of making money."
Meanwhile, the union argues the real income of refinery workers, who
average $14.44 an hour, has fallen below the level they enjoyed in 1976. ''We've cooperated with the companies on some automation and business changes. We're about ready for them to treat us fair, too, now," Mr. Childs said.
In addition to a "substantial" but unspecified pay raise, the union also wants job security. Between 1980 and 1985, the union saw 127 refineries close and 20,000 jobs disappear.
Although Amoco has not yet addressed job security to union satisfaction, the company has stirred hope for a quick settlement by making a pay offer similar to the 1986 agreement. "They usually don't come up with an offer that close to the previous settlement this early," Mr. Childs said.
The offer, which the union rejected, called for a $900 "signing bonus," and a 2 percent raise in the second year of a two-year contract. The 1986 deal involved a $1,000 lump-sum payment and a 2 percent raise in the second year.
Amoco's offer, the company's second of the current negotiations, was an improvement over an original proposal of a $750 bonus and a 1.5 percent raise in the second year, officials said.
Although Mr. Childs said the second Amoco offer was "On the right track," he warned the outcome of the talks remains iffy. "There are some indications there that the companies are going to try to do right, but it's kind of like trying to predict politics or football games or horse races. There are so many possibilities," Mr. Childs said.