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United Steelworkers, ExxonMobil discuss backpay at federal court hearing in Houston

During day three of the hearing, Bryan Gross, a representative for the USW, was the first witness called by ExxonMobil to testify.

HOUSTON, Texas — Representatives from ExxonMobil and the United Steelworkers union met in Houston as the union sought back pay for the months its members were locked out of work.

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board asked a judge to order back-pay for the workers in October 2022. More than 600 employees were locked out of the Beaumont refinery from May 2021 until March 2022 following failed contract negotiations.

The hearing began Monday with an administrative law judge from the NLRB presiding over it. While the hearing is not considered a lawsuit, it could lay the groundwork for one.

During day three of the hearing, Bryan Gross, a representative for the USW, was the first witness called by ExxonMobil to testify. He talked about bargaining attempts, proposals to the company, and some of his news interviews.

The former operation manager at ExxonMobil also testified. He no longer work at Exxon but was involved in negotiation during the lockout. 

Gross told 12News the USW attorney does not expect for the hearing to finish by Thursday, and they will most likely have to reconvene on March 21 to continue the hearing 

In court Monday, there was one lawyer for the NLRB and two for the USW one side. Across the room there were more than six attorneys for ExxonMobil.

Following hours of negotiation, both sides reached an agreement in the partial settlement which involves four charges.Gross said the union considers the settlement to be an early win.

“Our people walked picket lines for 10 months, and stuck together,” Gross said. “It was worth it to get the settlement on these four charges. There’s not a lot of compensation involved, but it does hold merit.”

The union claims ExxonMobil was unfair in its labor practices and called the entire lockout “unlawful.”

If ExxonMobil is required to provide back-pay, it could cost the power giant millions.

“What happens is, the way U.S. labor law is, they give a lot of power to the national labor relations board for handling union management issues,” Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies, Cornell University said. "So they try to make the NLRB handle as many of these cases as they can."

On Tuesday, a union worker testified about things that happened throughout the bargaining process, during the lockout and all the way up until they returned to work. 

Tuesday afternoon, a former ExxonMobil employee testified about documents within the company.

His testimony was to determine if the documents could be used as part of the case.

Monday was spent hashing out the details of the settlement. Now that it has been signed, four out of the eight charges in the case are off the table. 

The settlement says ExxonMobil can no longer change shifts times, remove certain jobs at the refinery critical to safety and there are new rules for the USW’s access to information from the company.

However, while both sides agreed to a partial settlement on several issues, the battle over back pay continue.

"We look forward to establishing that ExxonMobil has acted lawfully at all times and confident we will prevail in this legal process," ExxonMobil said in a statement sent to 12News on Monday.

"The NLRB’s General Counsel has been publicly transparent about wanting to rewrite the National Labor Relations Act. This is just one more example of putting those words into action. In this trial, the NLRB’s General Counsel will attempt to overturn decades of labor law and Supreme Court precedent"

The lockout began on May 1, 2021, after ExxonMobil failed to reach a deal with the United Steelworkers union. 

During the almost 10-month long lockout, ExxonMobil USW officials met more then 50 times to discuss offers and many petitions circulated to remove the United Steel Workers union from representing the locked-out workers.

On Oct. 4, 2021, locked-out workers filed a petition to decertify the union. Afterward, union workers were asked to vote on whether to keep the union.

“Secret ballots” were sent out in the mail to USW workers on November 12, 2021 and they had until December 22, 2021 to return the ballots to the National Labor Relations Board.

ExxonMobil officials are encouraging union members to break from the USW and go back to work.

A vote to decertify the USW union was impounded in late January as members of the National Labor Relations Board looked into three separate claims of unfair labor practices.

The NLRB impounded the decertification ballots on Dec. 29, 2021 and postponed the vote counting. Board members stated that they needed to look into allegations filed by both employees looking to decertify the union and the USW union against ExxonMobil.

Three months later the votes were counted and showed that 258 members voted in favor of being represented by the USW union and 229 voted against. 

Information previously obtained by 12News through open records requests revealed that there were two charges filed by the union against Exxon. There was also one charge filed by the decertification group against the union.

All the allegations filed with the NLRB were centered around unfair labor practices.

The first complaint was filed against the USW on Sept. 30, 2021 by members of the decertification group. The complaint stated in part that union, "officers, agents and representatives have restrained and coerced employees.”

In December of 2021, the union filed two charges against the power giant. Union officials claimed the company violated the National Labor Relations Act by promising to return employees to work if they decertified from the local union.

Union officials also claimed the company was not providing them with necessary information.

United Steelworkers union members voted to accepted one of ExxonMobil's offers in February 2022 effectively ending the lockout. In the offer presented on Feb. 11, ExxonMobil added the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to workers' calendars, updated the language to the union workmen’s committee, and separated job classifications for different jobs.

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