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United Steelworkers union members picket outside Exxon Mobil's oil refinery amid a contract dispute in Beaumont, Texas, on May 1, 2021.Erwin Seba/Reuters

AFL-CIO President Elizabeth Shuler called on Exxon Mobil Corp to end a four-month lockout of workers at its Beaumont, Texas, refinery because of “potential safety risks,” according to a copy of a letter seen by Reuters.

Exxon locked out the plant’s hourly employees on May 1, saying it feared a strike following the expiration of a labour contract.

Shuler said Exxon’s use of temporary workers to run the refinery created the risk of an industrial accident. Temporary workers lack the experience and training of permanent employees, she wrote.

“We believe that the risk of an industrial accident at the Beaumont complex can best be mitigated by negotiating a mutually agreeable end to the lockout.”

Exxon spokeswoman Julie King rejected the concerns. “We continue to operate Beaumont safely and reliably with a highly competent staff of supervisors and engineers,” she said in an e-mail.

Shuler’s letter to director Susan Avery, chair of the board’s public issues and contributions committee, was dated Aug. 30, the day Exxon rejected the last of three proposals made by United Steelworkers union (USW) local 12-243 last month to end the lockout.

“The USW has filed unfair labour practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Exxon Mobil illegally made unilateral changes to the continuing terms and conditions of employment and supported a union decertification campaign,” Shuler said.

The USW has said the company’s proposal would require its members give up long-standing seniority and would create a separate contract for workers in the lube oil plant from that of workers in the refinery.

Exxon has said the proposal would give it flexibility to be profitable in low-margin environments.

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