e-mail us
Jesuit rebuffs bishops, activists on ending lockout


In Texas 250 workers involved in a three-year lockout at a Crown Central Petroleum refinery are losing their homes and pulling their children out of college. In Baltimore, despite pleas from Catholic bishops in Texas, a Jesuit college president on Crown’s board not only declines to intervene but supports Crown’s actions.

The labor dispute began when the union -- Local 4227 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, called PACE -- and the company could not agree on a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired in January 1996.

On Feb. 5 of that year, company supervisors escorted all 252 union members out of the Crown refinery in Pasadena, Texas. Crown says it locked the workers out because the company suspected sabotage at the plant.

The union, says that Crown wants to eliminate positions and replace union workers with nonunion subcontractors. Crown has continued to operate the refinery with salaried and nonunion personnel.

The union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board protesting the legality of the lockout.

While the NLRB found no evidence of the sabotage alleged by Crown, it ruled that the lockout was not illegal since Crown had a “good faith belief” that sabotage was possible. The union points out that, despite an FBI investigation and Crown’s offer of a large reward for evidence of sabotage, no charges were ever filed.

“There is a lot of pain here right now,” says Nolan Melanson, who worked in the plant’s propane and butane section. “Some workers are losing their homes.”

For the past three years Melanson has worked construction and freelanced as a loan officer. The Melansons with their three children, two of whom are legally blind, are parishioners at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Houston. Their daughter had to leave St. Thomas University, where she was on the Dean’s List, because the family could no longer afford the tuition. Recently Melanson had to borrow against his Knights of Columbus life insurance policy to pay bills. Having lost medical benefits, he now pays about $800 a month for medical insurance.

The lockout has recently brought a Jesuit college president who sits on Crown’s board of directors under fire from a Catholic justice group in Baltimore, where Crown Petroleum is headquartered.

In February, Catholics for Justice at Crown Central Petroleum, seeking to end the lockout, appealed to Jesuit Fr. Harold Ridley, president of Loyola College in Baltimore, to meet with the workers and heed Catholic social teaching on labor disputes.

They asked Ridley “to bring moral sensitivity to bear on corporate decisions otherwise solely driven by profits.” They gave Ridley a petition signed by 200 Catholics, including Bishop Nicholas D’Antonio of New Orleans, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., Bishop John McCarthy of Austin, Texas, Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Va., and Mercy Sr. Kathy Thornton, national coordinator of NETWORK, a social justice lobbying group.

Ridley has repeatedly refused to meet with the Catholics for Justice group or the workers. He has said that Crown has been an “exemplary corporate citizen” and “has acted appropriately” in the lockout.

College linked to refinery

The college and refinery have close ties -- Ridley sits on Crown’s board; Crown CEO Henry A. Rosenberg Jr. sits on the Loyola board. The oil company gives money to Loyola, although the school refuses to divulge the amount.

David Gregory, labor law professor at St. John’s Law School, Jamaica, N.Y., said it is “outrageous” to try to justify a three-year lockout on the basis of unproven sabotage.

“An unsubstantiated but good faith fear of sabotage by an employer does provide some basis for a short-term lockout,” he said, “However, with the high tech and security monitoring capabilities available today, no employer can resort to such a rationale for more than, at most, several weeks. I suspect that what is really going on here is an attempt to raise classic antilabor fears as a pretext for the employer to avoid its duty to its workers.”

Loyola’s Ridley declined to be interviewed for this story, but in letters and statements has said, “it is not appropriate” for him to meet with Catholics for Justice and has told them to “desist from your efforts to pressure me to do something, which, in my professional judgment, I should not do.”

Members of the group, however, said they are seeking not his professional opinion but his “moral leadership” to solve the impasse.

Baltimore parish priest Fr. Joseph Bonadio, a member of Catholics for Justice at Crown Central, said, “I respect Fr. Ridley and the others on the board. They say they are following their consciences. But just following one’s conscience is not enough. The question is whether they’ve informed their consciences by Catholic social teaching.”

He cited Gaudium et Spes, a 1965 document of the Second Vatican Council, which says that in labor disputes there must always be an openness and sincere discussion between the parties. “Refusing to discuss the matter is not openness,” Bonadio said.

“It seems that the workers are being deprived of their basic rights to a job and to a living wage, a violation of core Catholic social teachings,” he said.

Ridley has said that he and the other three Catholics on Crown’s board “are fully aware of the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching about social and economic matters.” He says it’s inappropriate for him to meet with the workers, especially with litigation pending.

Social justice in the soul

Said Fr. Sinclair Oubre of Port Arthur, Texas, founder of the Catholic Labor Network, “The catechesis for social justice must be a part of the very soul of the persons who make decisions. Before Catholics join boards of directors, they must be formed in the concepts of the Catholic social vision.

“One lesson that can come out of the Crown lockout,” Sinclair said, “is the need to re-catechize our laity, clergy and religious in their responsibilities as social Catholics.”

Other religious groups have also requested that Crown officials end the lockout. The Baltimore Ministerial Alliance voted in early 1998 to support the workers. The National Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest African-American church organization has endorsed the union boycott of Crown products.

Crown’s two Texas plants process more than 150,000 barrels of crude oil daily into gasoline. Crown also has over 300 gas stations in eastern states that primarily operate under its Zippy Mart and Fast Fare brand names.

Separately, Crown is under fire over environmental, race and gender allegations.

Environmental groups have sued Crown for violations of the federal Clean Air Act and cited a report that the refinery had a threefold increase in pollution in the first 20 months after the lockout began and the union workers were replaced by less experienced workers.

In addition, a federal class-action suit was filed by employees against Crown in Texas two years ago alleging race and gender discrimination in employment and the creation of a hostile work environment for women and African-American employees.

Employees say that supervisors created and posted racist and misogynist cartoons and handbills in public places, charges Crown denies.

Cyrus Mehri, an attorney representing some of the workers, said, “We have examined literally dozens of potential cases, and we found Crown to have the most abhorrent and hostile workplace for women and African-Americans.”

Melanson, the butane worker, said, “Union members were told they could go back to work if Crown would be allowed to terminate a number of workers, mostly women and blacks, and do away with the union seniority system. That would wreck our union.”

Mary Kambic, a Catholics for Justice coordinator, said the group will try to again raise the moral issues at Crown’s board meeting April 22.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999