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Labor judge rules that Phillips 66 news media policy violates the law 

In late 2012, amid labor negotiations between management and employees at the Phillips 66 refinery in Nipomo, the company emailed a news media policy to employees prohibiting them from speaking to reporters.

But, on Nov. 25, a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge found that the policy violated federal labor laws. The ruling is the latest stemming from a complaint over labor disputes submitted to the board by five employees working as health and safety specialists at the Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo. They allege that management threatened them with reprisals in a January 2012 meeting if they voted for union representation and proceeded to carry out those threats, according to court documents.

- LABORIN' AWAY:  Stemming from 2012 labor negotiations, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Phillips 66 violated federal labor law in its dealings with health and safety specialists at the Santa Maria Refinery. -  - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • LABORIN' AWAY: Stemming from 2012 labor negotiations, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Phillips 66 violated federal labor law in its dealings with health and safety specialists at the Santa Maria Refinery.

Specifically, Labor Relations Board Judge Lisa D. Thompson ruled that the Phillips 66 media policy violates section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ rights to organize.

The email Phillips sent appeared in the ruling. In part it states: “If a Phillips 66 employee or on-site contractor is contacted by a member of the news media, no information exchange is permitted concerning Santa Maria or Rodeo Refinery operations.”

In a New Times article published in April of this year, the company defended the policy as routine business practice. Joe Stuligross, associate general counsel for United Steelworkers, told New Times that the policy violated the law. Stuligross couldn’t immediately be reached for comment for this story.

A message New Times left with United Steelworkers Local 534 in Grover Beach seeking comment wasn’t returned before press time.

According to case documents, attorneys representing Phillips 66 argued in court that the policy was meant to prohibit employees from speaking on the company’s behalf about any confidential operations.

But the judge rejected this argument, saying the policy was ambiguous and violates the law because employees could “reasonably construe” that it would prohibit them from discussing, among other things, labor disputes or conditions of work.

Judge Thompson concluded that Phillips 66 made unlawful threats that unionization would result in a loss of/changes to certain duties, schedules and work hours,” as well as threats “that impermissibly implied a promise of benefit to the [health and safety specialists] if they voted against the Union.”

Thompson wrote that Phillips 66 must cease and desist from a number of actions outlined in the case, including threatening employees with a loss or change of duties, schedules, work hours, or other terms of employment; implying benefits in exchange for a vote not to unionize; maintaining its news media guidelines; and failing to bargain in good faith.

Reached by email last week, Phillips 66 spokesperson Dennis H. Nuss said the company is aware of the recent decision, but didn’t make specific comments about the case.

However Nuss did write: “Our company’s top priority is the safety of everyone who works at our sites and lives in our neighboring communities. In 2012, Phillips 66 redistributed certain safety-related functions and responsibilities among personnel at the Santa Maria Refinery, and there were no staff reductions. These changes have helped maintain and improve the refinery’s high standards for safety performance.”

Read the New Times cover story: Re(de)fining safety (December 13th, 2012).

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