Valero Uses Contract Workers for Easy Layoffs

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We’ve been watching the refining company Valero since it spent $5 million last year attempting to kill California’s landmark global warming law and throttle the state’s green energy industries. Valero didn’t succeed with Proposition 23, but ads for the ballot measure pounded on the idea that the ballot measure would protect jobs.

So does Valero really believe in protecting jobs? CEO Bill Klesse sure says so, and until 2009 boasted that Valero had never laid off an employee. In an interview published Tuesday, he called for “getting people back to work’” but pointedly ignored his own company’s layoffs, especially of contract workers.

At refineries, contract workers can outnumber regular employees. They’re disposable any time a refiner wants to cut production–ask the nearly 1,000 contract workers summarily dismissed from Valero’s Aruba plant (pictured) 16 months ago.

The contract hires don’t get corporate benefits and have about zero for job protection, making them a CEO’s dream.

The oil and refining business is full of contract workers, who take all the risks of real employees without the benefits. For instance, the 15 workers killed in an explosion blamed on cost-cutting at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2005 were all contract workers, for whom BP refused to build safe working quarters. None of the 11 victims of BP’s Gulf of Mexico rig explosion in April were BP employees, and BP felt safe ignoring their families.

Deaths make the news, but layoffs don’t.

Valero’s large refinery on the Caribbean island of Aruba, for instance, had an estimated 1,000 contract workers going into 2009, and 650 to 780 Valero employees (reports vary on this). They constituted nearly 4% of the island’s work force. So after Valero quit production at the Aruba plant in July 2009, it fired all or nearly all of the contract employees–oh, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Valero announced that it was “moving toward restarting” the plant in June, and has just kept saying the same thing. Now it says it might restart in January. It may or may not reopen all the plant’s processes, and may or may not hire back some or all of the contract employees, even though Aruba made tax concessions and helped Valero bring in cheap, if explosive, liquefied natural gas to power the refinery when/if it restarts.

When Valero shut a smaller refinery in Delaware for good, also in 2009, the  nearly 550 workers who were laid off–both contract workers and employees– got $3.5 million in retraining benefits. But the benefits weren’t from Valero. They were paid for with a grant from the federal Department of Labor.

Valero, having gotten rid of its expensive work force and shoved them off on the government, then sold the Delaware refinery.

So much for saving jobs and valuing employees–especially for contract workers who shoulder much of the industrial risk. For refineries and oil companies, disposable contract workers are their front line for layoffs.

When Valero funded Proposition 23, it was after higher profits, not job protection. California is the land of gold for refiners, with profit margins well above the national average, according to a Consumer Watchdog study earlier this year.

The company spent $5 million trying to prevent green competition. It could have spent the money preparing its California refineries for tougher pollution limits–but as Klesse has complained, Valero doesn’t get a profit return from cutting pollution. So maybe he’ll just make up the lost money through more layoffs. with contract workers first in line.

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