PASADENA, Tex. -- This gritty sprawl of rust-colored pipelines, cooling towers and squat storage tanks along the 52-mile Houston Shipping Channel is the largest conglomeration of petrochemical plants and refineries in the United States and the second largest in the world.
Almost lost in this $15 billion maze is the bigger of Crown Central Petroleum Corp.'s two Texas refineries, its 100,000-barrel-a-day capacity dwarfed by most of the others.
Outside the Crown refinery's gates, a handful of union pickets appear three times a day -- a forlorn reminder that 252 of the Baltimore company's workers in central Texas remain locked out -- 31 months after being escorted off the premises and replaced by workers who are paid less.
"Crown is one of the smaller players down here," said Mickey Breaux, an international representative for the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW) and since last September the chief negotiator in the labor stalemate.
"We're not one of the biggest dogs in the woods. But it's hard to believe that people don't know workers here are still locked out of their jobs."
"We're too small in Texas and too far away from Baltimore," he said.
The union is working to span the miles and bring the fight to Crown's hometown turf, where it's better known for philanthropy, an extensive network of gas stations, pervasive radio commercials and Baltimore Oriole promotions.
That has helped escalate what began as an almost-cliche labor/management squabble about work-rule changes and layoffs into a contest that's become intensely personal as Crown battles problems on multiple fronts. Among them:
Annual losses of nearly $125 million since 1990 and a stock price languishing below $10 -- less than half its book value. Most of Wall Street has thrown in the towel: Few analysts follow the company anymore.
A sexual harassment suit, filed by hourly and salaried women and minority employees alleging that management has created and perpetuated a culture of rampant racism and sexism.
A fine of more than $1 million -- a Texas state record -- for violating air-pollution regulations. The fine resulted from complaints by a Texas citizens group which gets a small part of its funds from the oil union.
A lawsuit, filed by Crown against the union and about a dozen of its members, alleging they encouraged a campaign of sabotage the company contends could have led to a serious explosion.
Crown says all the allegations against it are false and says the union is just trying to hurt the company any way it can.
"This is really a management issue, pure and simple," said Joseph M. Coale, director of corporate communications for Crown Central in Baltimore. "They've brought the environment into it, they've brought racism into it, they've brought sexism into it, they've even brought religion into it.
"They're doing anything they can to develop concern and to keep the shots coming across the bow -- anything to get management to change its course. But management has resolved to see this through in order to save money -- substantial money."
Coale pointed out that the National Labor Relations Board, in dealing with a series of unfair labor practices allegations by the union, absolved the company of any wrongdoing in the lockout.
With the hiring of 125-130 replacement workers, once-rampant absenteeism at the Pasadena refinery has dropped, the safety record has improved, and operations are running smoothly, the company said.
Three straight losses
Even so, the savings have been eroded by costs related to the lockout, and Crown has logged three straight quarters of losses totaling more than $16 million.
The union says it won't give in because the company wants a "blank check" to fire hourly workers to make up for costly mistakes that management itself has made.
Though the oil union has at times cited the company's myriad problems in an effort to leverage its cause, its leaders are also quick to steer attention back to the main event: the lockout that began Feb. 5, 1996 when workers were escorted from the plant or called at home and told not to report to work.
There's been a human toll in this war of attrition between Crown and oil union's Local 4-227, which represents the locked-out workers.
Of the 252 originally locked out, the company says 68 have either retired or resigned -- most of them, the union says, because of financial straits that forced them to draw on their retirement accounts.
Several have come close to losing their homes and others have seen their credit ratings ruined. Workers who made more than $20 an hour now find themselves retired or working at menial jobs.
Danny Duncan, 51, who joined Crown in June 1977 after a stint in the U.S. Army, says his once pristine credit rating is destroyed, he can't support his family, and his weight has ballooned as his health deteriorates.
'I'll just cry'