Union sends messages of frustration in U.S. refinery contract talks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - In five days of negotiations for a new three-year contract covering hourly workers at 63 U.S. refineries, the United Steelworkers union (USW) has sent only messages of frustration to its members. Twitter messages on Friday and Saturday said one industry offer had been rejected and the talks with lead industry negotiator Royal Dutch Shell Plc were moving slowly. On Sunday, the union said its members were being angered by the actions by some oil companies in talks over local issues. "Anger builds by USW members as oil companies play games at local tables," read Sunday's message. The negotiations underway between the USW and Shell are to reach a national agreement that sets a floor on pay and benefits along with some other issues for USW members. At each refinery, the local union and plant managers negotiate on questions specific to that location. The national agreement and local agreement are put together to make a contract at an individual refinery. For its part, Shell said it thought a deal was possible before the current contract expires at 12:01 local time on Feb. 1. "We remain optimistic that a mutually satisfactory agreement can be negotiated with the USW," Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said on Saturday night. At least five contract proposals were rejected before an agreement was reached in 2012 on the current contract. The 2012 agreement was reached just hours before the contract was set to expire. USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who is the union's lead negotiator, does have authority to call a strike if a new agreement is not reached. The union and refiners have made preparations for a possible work stoppage. The Steelworkers are seeking annual pay raises double those of the last agreement. The union also wants work given to non-union contractors to go to USW members, a tighter policy to prevent fatigue, and reductions in members' out-of-pocket payments for healthcare. [See FACTBOX ID:nL1N0V5028] (Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Eric Walsh)