Refinery worker standards bill passes Minnesota House, heads to governor’s desk

The bill passed along with new protections for workers at Amazon warehouses

By: - April 24, 2023 9:07 pm

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

Update: Gov. Tim Walz signed this bill into law on May 2, 2023.

Petroleum refineries will have to hire more highly trained contractors under a bill passed by the House with bipartisan support on Monday. The bill (SF10) was already passed by the Senate and now heads to Gov. Tim Walz, who is expected to sign it into law.

The bill, which passed 83-46, will require the state’s two oil refineries to have at least 60% of their workforce be graduates of a registered apprenticeship program or currently enrolled in one by 2026.

The new training requirements were driven by union workers at Ohio-based Marathon’s refinery in St. Paul Park, who say the company is putting them and the public at risk by employing too many inexperienced contract workers.

“We want quality people working in the refinery with us,” said Dean Benson, who retired from the Marathon refinery in January after nearly two decades. “If you’re a contractor, it’s real hard to keep you safe if you don’t know anything about what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Mistakes at refineries have the potential to be catastrophic. The Marathon refinery uses a chemical called hydrogen fluoride, which turns into a low-hanging vapor at room temperature and can cause serious injuries, even death, if inhaled.

Last month, 500 barrels of liquid asphalt spilled at the St. Paul Park refinery and injured two contractors. In 2018, an explosion at a refinery in Superior, Wisc., injured three dozen employees and contractors and forced large sections of the city to evacuate. The saving grace was that the fire didn’t reach the tank with hydrofluoric acid about 150 feet away. A federal investigation released this year cited a lack of worker training as one of the causes of the accident.

The use of contract workers was one of the reasons about 200 Marathon workers, who are unionized with the Teamsters Local 120, went on strike in 2021, which led to a five-month long work stoppage. Marathon eventually agreed to greater limits on subcontracting union work, but workers say conditions have still worsened since they returned to work.

Marathon, the nation’s largest oil refiner, opposed the new training requirements, saying they will create a shortage of contractors and limit their ability to hire the best workers. Marathon also said the rules would violate workers’ rights to not be in a union because the bill requires a majority of contractors to have training through registered apprenticeship programs, which are largely run by unions.

“Trading skilled and experienced workers for those with potentially less training simply because they attended an apprenticeship program is an inherent safety risk,” Marathon wrote in a letter sent to lawmakers.

The state’s other oil refinery, Flint Hills’ Pine Bend refinery in Rosemount, remained neutral on the bill after negotiations with the bill’s authors, according to Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora.

“The refineries are not just the typical work environment … the wrong move with the wrong tool in this situation can be catastrophic,” said Lislegard, who carried the bill in the House.

Republicans, who blocked the legislation in 2021, said it was a giveaway to unions and would lead to skilled, non-union workers losing their jobs.

“State government shouldn’t be in the business of firing people in this state,” said Rep. Isaac Schultz, R-Elmdale.

Schultz ultimately voted for the bill along with a dozen other Republicans, a reflection of the party’s desire not to alienate its growing number of supporters in predominantly white and male industrial trades.

Republicans were unified, by contrast, against the other labor bills debated on the House floor aimed at helping workers in large warehouses, meatpacking plants and nursing homes.

The House passed a bill (HF36) requiring companies that operate large warehouses like Amazon to provide data to workers about productivity quotas, 69-60, without any Republican votes. The bill also prohibits employers from setting quotas that would interfere with required breaks, and requires state labor regulators to investigate violations if there is a 30% spike in occupational injuries. That bill has not yet passed the Senate.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, 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.