Reformer Radio: Marathon v. the Teamsters

The Marathon oil refinery in St. Paul Park. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Workers at the oil refinery in St. Paul Park say the plant’s owner, Marathon, has put them on a path to catastrophe.

“Safety’s kinda went on the backburner.… Especially now that big corporation Marathon owns us. It’s pretty much corporate greed over safety,” said Matt Foss, a fire mechanic and rescue squad lieutenant who’s worked at the refinery for 22 years.

On January 21, Foss and about 200 other skilled workers with the Teamsters Local 120 went on a 24-hour strike, alleging unsafe working conditions and unfair labor practices. The next day, they say they showed up at work and were told they were trespassing, locking them into a bitter labor dispute that’s lasted more than 125 days.

At the heart of the dispute is the use of contract workers. Marathon wants to combine jobs and replace some union positions with non-union contractors once the jobs are voluntarily vacated. Marathon says it does rigorous vetting of its contractors, but the Teamsters say the move will lead to a lower-skilled workforce, higher turnover and, ultimately, a less safe refinery.

Over the past few years, workers say they’ve already seen Marathon — now the biggest oil refinery company in the United States — cut costs by bringing in less experienced workers from out-of-state.

“They’re bringing up folks that maybe were just making pizzas one day and now they’re pulling apart exchangers and vessels and equipment inside of a refinery,” Foss said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Marathon says it has rigorous health and safety standards and an exemplary record. It points to the fact that it hasn’t had any complaints to regulators at the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health agency since taking control in 2018.

The St. Paul Park Refinery sits right along the Mississippi River, just 10 minutes south of St. Paul on Highway 61. Crude oil arrives by train and pipeline from North Dakota and Canada, which the refinery heats and mixes with chemicals before sending back out as gasoline, diesel, propane, butane and asphalt. The plant employs 400 full-time workers, processing a little more than 100,000 barrels of crude per day.

Given its proximity to St. Paul and surrounding suburbs, union workers say a mistake at the plant could end up endangering more than a million residents.

In April, the Laborers Union released a report, based on dozens of interviews with workers including Foss, detailing concerns at the refinery. The Teamsters have been rallying support from politicians including Gov. Tim Walz and city leaders of St. Paul Park and Newport, who’ve criticized the lockout of workers at the plant.

(Marathon has disputed that the workers are locked out, calling it a strike.)

Workers and local leaders have also expressed concern about who’s working in refinery while the Teamsters are locked out, but Marathon says its contingency workforce is well-trained.

Foss and the Teamsters also say Marathon has begun combining jobs, making people do more work, and that the company has reduced investments in training. But the biggest, and most concerning change for Foss is in his own department.

The refinery used to have a full-time fire department with an additional nine full-time contract firefighters and 30 volunteers, but Marathon switched to an on-call firefighting system, moving some firefighters into other jobs at the plant and eliminating other positions, according to Foss.

The reason workers are so concerned, they say, is because if something goes bad, it can go really bad. The St. Paul Park refinery uses a dangerous industrial chemicals called hydrofluoric acid.

Only a small amount of the chemical can be fatal.

“It basically will eat through your skin, get into your bloodstream, and it goes and will take the calcium out of your blood, and you will no longer be here,” Foss said.

Earlier this month at another Marathon refinery in Texas, there was a small hydrofluoric acid leak that sent two workers to the hospital while residents of Texas City — a Houston suburb — were told to shelter in place.

The Husky oil refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, also uses hydrofluoric acid. An explosion there injured three dozen Husky employees and contractors and forced large sections of the city to evacuate.

The saving grace was that the asphalt fire didn’t reach the tank with hydrofluoric acid about 150 feet away. The close call prompted local lawmakers to call on both refineries in Superior and St. Paul Park to stop using hydrofluoric acid altogether.

This year, labor activists have also proposed legislation that would require that 85% of workers at Minnesota oil refineries have experience through a registered apprenticeship program. The bill was introduced in the state House and Senate but did not pass.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.