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SB 54 creates a new, safe day at refineries

Local unions pushed together for statewide law to improve dangerous worksites

By Mark Edward Nero, Building Trades News (

SINCE IT WENT into effect in 2014, a law requiring private refineries to pay prevailing wages and employ a percentage of workers who have graduated from an apprenticeship program has made its impact in ensuring that Southern California refineries have skilled, safe and well-trained workforces, members of the Building Trades say.

SB 54, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2013 and went into effect in January 2014, applies to workers engaged in construction and maintenance work at oil refineries. Ultimately, it requires 60 percent of refinery contractors’ workers to be journeymen who have graduated from a state or federally approved apprenticeship program.

The legislation has had an effect on operations at most of the refineries in the greater Los Angeles area, including the Exxon Mobil facility in Torrance and the Chevron refinery in El Segundo.

“It’s given the union contractors a better opportunity to work in the refineries; it’s opened up some doors for us,” said Tom Richey, a Southern California construction manager with industrial construction services company Performance Mechanical Inc.

Richey said that thanks to apprenticeship programs, trainees are “very well qualified” when they begin working at a refinery.

“It has been a huge benefit to my local,” said UA Local 250 Steam & Pipefitters Business Manager Glenn Santa Cruz, whose headquarters is in the heart of the refining district. “It’s creating a lot of jobs; it’s also bringing a skilled workforce to the refinery. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Ben Clayton, assistant business manager with Local 250, said SB 54’s goal is to have a skilled workforce in the refinery. “Not just people off the street,” he said, “people that are well trained.”

“SB 54 really has opened the doors a little wider for us when it comes to the oil refineries. Before, the non-union contractors were stronger at these facilities because of a lack of regulations. Now that SB 54 is taking place, it’s required for 60 percent of the manpower to go through the apprenticeship program. Now the guys are more prepared and ready to do the work than before.”
— Oscar Davila, Local 92 Business Agent

The key issue is safety, with a number of California refineries suffering explosions in the past. That’s what led State Sen. Loni Hancock to sponsor the bill in 2013.

“SB 54 will ensure that the contractors at refinery facilities use skilled and qualified workers to reduce public health and safety risks,” Hancock said when the bill passed. “In addition, extending prevailing wage to this contract work will ensure that there is an economic incentive to use qualified workers for these high-hazard jobs.”

Her predictions have come true. As 2016 begins, there’s a wide and diverse number of Trades at the refineries, and locals have dozens or hundreds of members working at a site during any given time.

“We’ve got Pipefitters, we’ve got Boilermakers, we’ve got Carpenters, we’ve got Laborers, we’ve got all crafts out here,” Clayton said. “The sky’s the limit when you get yourself skilled up and trained and have a good attitude and good work ethic.”

An example of this, he said, is the success of Crystal Lewis, a 15-year Local 250 member who’s been working at the Chevron facility for several months and recently became its first female general foreman. Lewis, who was previously a non-union worker, went through a five-year apprenticeship program, and said the difference between union and non-union work is clear.

“I can see a difference in the craftsmanship, the unity within the union, they do it right the first time, they’re safe. There’s a big difference,” she said. “I’m thankful that they saw my potential and gave me the opportunity to show that women can do construction well and we’re capable of being general foremen and running jobs and crews.”

One of her colleagues, Ed Bernal, a project superintendent who has 42 years with Local 250 and has worked at the Chevron site for several months, said that SB 54 has changed things for the better.

“I have noticed a complete makeover of refinery procedures and tactics. It’s much more intense, it’s quite an improvement overall,” he said. “The industry as a whole has taken safety to a higher level.”

Local 250 President Pete Wohlgezogen, who’s worked at the Chevron plant for a few months and has also worked at other refineries, said that thanks to the additional job training, things run smoother.

“Everyone’s on the same page, because we’ve gone through the same program. It definitely makes things easier; when you communicate, the understanding’s there,” he said. “I’m happy with SB 54. It’s definitely going to increase the skillset out here a little more.”

Peter Santillan, Business Manager of Laborers Local 1309, said two new contractors have signed with the local in order to win refinery work. Non-union workers are approaching the local about joining, and the Laborers are including more safety and refinery-oriented training in their apprenticeship.

“This industry is practicing what they preach, and creating a better environment for everyone,” Santillan said.

Mitch Ponce, a business agent with Iron Workers Local 433, said that one of the great aspects of the apprenticeships is they’re open to people living in the Southland communities.

“A lot of people that grow up in the shadow of these refineries now have a chance to work at these refineries,” Ponce pointed out. “Before SB 54, a lot of the workers were coming from out of state and the refineries were employing out-of-state contractors, which would ship in workers from Texas, Louisiana and other Gulf states, undercutting the wages of the Building Trades. SB 54 is going to ensure that local people will be in these refineries.”

Johnny Bernal, a business representative for Boilermakers Local 92, said that the law has been a big help in bringing skilled labor back to the plants.

“It’s the main tool for getting us back in the refineries,” he said.

Oscar Davila, also with Local 92, expanded on Bernal’s comment.

“SB 54 really has opened the doors a little wider for us when it comes to the oil refineries,” he said. “Before, the non-union contractors were stronger at these facilities because of a lack of regulations. Now that SB 54 is taking place, it’s required for 60 percent of the manpower to go through the apprenticeship program. Now the guys are more prepared and ready to do the work than before.”

Davila, who serves as a field/shop instructor, said that so far, about 800 Boilermakers have gone through new training to fulfill the requirements of SB 54.

Fernando Martinez, a journeyman with IBEW Local 11, has worked at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance about 10 months. He said he’s pleased by the training requirement for apprentices.

“The whole electrical field will be elevated, especially at refineries,” he said.

Bob Milanovich, IBEW Local 11 member since 1982 who’s worked at the Torrance refinery about nine years, said he’s also pleased by the training requirement.

“In the past some of the non-union shops had a lot more work out here. The people working for them weren’t as trained,” he said. “Now it’s coming back to union. Better-quality work, I think. Better-trained people.”

Robert Corona, a representative of Local 11 who works specifically on refineries, said that about 100-150 members of his local are working at an area refinery at any given time. As a result of SB 54, he said, the union is implementing an industrial Electricians certification-type course specifically for refineries.

“That way, our Electricians who haven’t been in this industry for a while have that training and when they come out to our contractors, they’re better prepared to do this type of work,” he said.

Tom Gutierrez, Business Manager with Heat & Frost Insulators Local 5, said another effect that SB 54 has had is aiding collective bargaining.

“We’d been in the refinery for 20 years and we’d had a wage freeze for at least 10 years because we were one of the few unions in the refinery. So when SB 54 came in, we were able to get a six or seven dollar wage increase an hour,” Gutierrez said. “This effect has really helped out the Insulators and Fire Stoppers as far as hours, money and manning the work.”

Tags  Headline News
Reporter  V55N1
Published on the Web: March 1, 2016

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