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Exxon refinery lockout 'unlawful,' back pay sought by U.S. Labor Board

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Exxon Mobil begins lockout of workers from Texas plant

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said a 10-month lockout of workers at an Exxon Mobil Corp refinery in Texas was an "unlawful" effort to remove the United Steelworkers union (USW) representing the workers, according to a complaint issued on Monday.

The NLRB asked an administrative law judge to issue back pay, among other remedies, to the more than 600 workers locked out of their jobs at Exxon's Beaumont, Texas, refinery and lube oil plant between May 2021 and March 2022.

A hearing on the complaint and proposed remedies is scheduled for January in Houston. Union refinery workers with at least four years experience nationally make over $41 per hour on average. The back pay could cost Exxon tens of millions of dollars.

"Exxon Mobil acted in accordance with the law at all times," spokesperson Julie King said in a statement.

Exxon issued messages to the locked-out workers promising they could return to their jobs if they voted to decertify USW local 13-243 as their representative, the NLRB said.

"If (Exxon’s) lockout had been lawful, by its conduct (seeking decertification), the lockout was converted to an unlawful one," the NLRB said.

Decertification would have removed the union from representing the workers in the refinery. However, workers voted on March 14 to keep USW local 13-243 as their representative.

Exxon "provided more than ministerial aid to efforts of employees in their attempts to decertify" the union, according to the NLRB notice.

Bryan Gross, a USW International representative, said the board's complaint was welcome news for workers locked out by Exxon.

"We're glad the board saw what we saw," Gross said on Monday. "We stood by our members."

Exxon has said it began the lockout in response to a strike notice issued by the union during negotiations in January 2021 for a new contract. A lockout was necessary to prevent potential disruption to the 369,024 barrel-per-day (bpd) processing facility.

The refinery, Exxon's third largest in the United States by capacity, remained in operation throughout the lockout with replacements hired locally or transferred in from other Exxon plants.

The NLRB said the use of replacements was "inherently destructive of the rights guaranteed employees" by federal law.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Bernadette Baum)