Teamsters take fight to Marathon as refinery dispute enters fifth month

Mornings are a congested, busy time at the main gate outside Marathon’s St. Paul Park refinery. Semi trucks line up on both sides of the gate, waiting to cross a picket line held by Teamsters who, since January, have been holding out for a contract that protects local jobs and the safety of communities surrounding the refinery.

3 men hold signs on the picket line on the street in front of a semi truck

Union Advocate

No more than three picketers are allowed at the refinery entrance at a time.

Local authorities have ruled no more than three members of Local 120 may picket an entrance to the refinery at one time, but dozens of Teamsters show up to the main gate anyway. They take turns on the line, keep each other company and otherwise pass the time.

It’s a slow-moving, but essential part of Local 120’s campaign against Marathon. But it’s not for everyone.

Almost every morning since the work stoppage began, a handful of Teamsters have volunteered for what’s known as “ambulatory picketing.” They pick out a truck exiting the refinery, tail it wherever it goes and picket outside the facility as the truck unloads. When the truck finishes unloading, the picket comes down.

More often than not, those trucks end up at a Speedway.

Picketing outside the refinery annoys Marathon and its vendors, but ambulatory picketing gives refinery workers like Ryan Bierman, whose pickup truck has been on “well over a hundred” picketing runs, an opportunity to educate the public.

“I enjoy just getting out and talking to different people about what’s going on with our strike and what the company wants to do, cutting potentially up to 50 local jobs and putting pretty much the whole plant at risk,” Bierman said. “And with that plant being so tightly-knit into different communities – St. Paul Park, Newport, Cottage Grove – if there is a major fire, an explosion or a chemical release, all these other communities are going to be put at risk too.”

Dick Briguet, Mason Bahl and Alex Kittleson advise Speedway customers in Brooklyn Center that the gas they’re about to purchase crossed a picket line. (Credit: Union Advocate)

Bierman typically livestreams the ambulatory picket on his social media account, where thousands of people have watched as he and other picketers use megaphones to warn approaching vehicles that the Speedway or other station is getting a delivery of “scab gas” from St. Paul Park.

“I’m letting people know that the highly trained employees who are normally in there making the fuel are not in there making the fuel,” refinery worker Dick Briguet said. “They brought in other workers to make it, other people in there testing it, so we can’t personally guarantee that it’s quality fuel.”

Local 120 members cannot legally call for a boycott of stations selling Marathon’s gas, but the union is finding creative and effective ways to pressure Marathon, the nation’s largest independent refining company, to get back to the table and bargain a fair, safe contract.

In advance of the company’s April 28 virtual shareholder meeting, the Teamsters led a successful campaign to convince 70% of voting shareholders to oppose the company’s executive compensation – a pay structure headlined by $6 million in restricted stock for the outgoing chairman and CEO, Gary Heminger. It was the largest margin of defeat in a “say-on-pay” vote at any S&P 500 energy company this year, according to the union.

“Marathon investors are not impressed with the golden parachutes the company provides its executives, the 379:1 CEO-to-median-employee pay ratio, and the risks the company has created by jeopardizing safety at its St. Paul Park refinery by locking out its workers,” Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall said. “Placing workers, the community and the environment at undue risk is a clear … failure reflected in the vote.”

Last Friday workers from the St. Paul Park refinery traveled to Ohio, where they rallied for an end to the strike with local Teamsters and lawmakers. Earlier in the week, St. Paul Park workers staged an action in Findlay, Ohio, home of Marathon’s headquarters.

Closer to home, the Marathon dispute has prompted several Minnesota legislators to look into changing state law to ensure an adequately trained workforce in local refineries.

And Local 120 has rolled out a “Burn Zone” campaign to raise awareness of the devastating impact a safety incident at the St. Paul Park refinery could have on surrounding communities. Text “BURN” to 86466 or visit to learn more.

“Teamsters are punching above their weight in this fight, and it’s inspiring to see,” St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Kera Peterson said. “So is the solidarity other union members have offered these refinery workers, who are taking a stand for everyone’s safety.”

When people understand what’s going on in St. Paul Park, they typically support the Teamsters’ cause, refinery worker Mason Bahl said. That’s why he likes ambulatory picketing.

“It actually gives you a sense a satisfaction to go to a Minnoco or another independently owned station and talk to the manager, and they agree without you,” Bahl said. “They say, ‘Hey, we get it. We won’t get fuel from your refinery anymore.’”

“We just try to tell people what’s going on, why we’re here and how to help us out,” refinery worker Alex Kittleson added. “And a lot of people seem to understand that it’s about safety for ourselves, our families and our communities.”

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