Nervousness spills from giant oil deal Mobil workers wary of changes, cutbacks after Exxon takeover

December 03, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BEAUMONT, Tex. -- To an outsider, the two refineries seem almost identical, two huge expanses with thousands of employees and multiple towers piercing the flat landscape like some sort of industrial forest. And both fly three flags at their entrances -- the stars and stripes of the nation, the Lone Star banner of this proud state and a third one that clearly distinguishes one world from the other.

Here, the flag bears the flying red horse of Mobil. Some 60 miles west on Interstate 10, that banner features the crossed-Xs of Exxon.

But in the largest corporate merger ever, they stand to become one and the same. Even as Wall Street cheers the consolidation, here at the refineries some workers are worried about what it means to them.

Exxon and Mobil officials have spent the past five months hammering out the details of their multi-billion-dollar union, but their workers here in the bayou country of southeast Texas were surprised to learn they could be working for a new, two-headed company.

"We heard about it when everyone else did -- when it was in the newspaper," said Mickey Heard, a 20-year veteran of the Mobil refinery who still sounded a bit stunned yesterday that he might soon be working for something called Exxon Mobil.

It's unsettling, he and other Mobil workers said, to be the subjects of an arranged corporate marriage. Primary in many minds is the question: Where will the 9,000 layoffs expected in the merger come from?

Officials aren't saying for now. In the meantime, the workers continue to report for their 12-hour shifts, everything nominally the same, yet undeniably different.

"When I hired on in 1978, this was a good job and you were going to work for Mobil until you retired," Heard, 51, said. "We always say around here, if you're not going to work for yourself, you go work for Mobil. The benefits, the pay -- it's a good job, if you don't mind getting a little dirty.

"But now, it's just a big unknown," he continued. "Some years back, when they were losing money, the company asked its people to pull together and save the company from being sold. We did that, and now they're making record profits and they let the company be sold. That tells you something about company loyalty."

Workers here are more unnerved than their counterparts at Exxon's refinery in Baytown. Although it's called a merger, it's really Exxon buying Mobil.

"If Mobil had bought Exxon," Heard said last evening as he stopped by his union's office to vote on officers, "I wouldn't worry."

The refinery workers share similarities: Both plants are among the largest in the country. Exxon employs 4,200 workers at its Baytown facility outside Houston. With some 8,600 other employees in the Houston area, they represent the largest concentration of Exxon workers in America.

Mobil employs 1,250 at the refinery here. "It's Mobil's biggest refinery in the United States," Richard Hidalgo, 52, said proudly. "It's the only Mobil refinery that makes Mobile One, their synthetic gas."

Hidalgo by coincidence retired as a pipefitter from the company on Tuesday, taking advantage of an early retirement incentive program. His son still works there, as does a cousin.

Like others, he worries what will happen with the different pay and benefits plans each company has.

"They're concerned about benefits and layoffs," Mary Jane Dawson, secretary-treasurer of Local 4-243 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, said of the 830 members. Exxon's employees are not affiliated with OCAW, she said.

At the local's office, workers drift in and out voting on a slate of candidates. On the walls, historical photographs speak to a time when the Mobil workers were once split into two locals, one white, one black.

Several miles away, a booming horn sounds, exactly at 5 p.m., and Mobil workers spill out of the exits.

They say they've been told nothing will change for now, and they're hopeful. These are good jobs, after all, with workers saying that, with overtime, they can make in excess of $55,000 a year.

"It's wait and see," said Harold Minard, who at 43 has worked for 22 years at Mobil. "There's nothing you can do about it."

West on Interstate 10, the Exxon refinery churns on as well, a huge facility that dominates Baytown, which is 30 miles from Houston.

Holiday decorations such as a lighted "Season's Greetings" sign that arcs over one entrance offer the sole bright spot on the industrial landscape of huge white holding tanks and gray towers belching white puffs of smoke.

"I'm not too concerned about it," said John Addams, a technician at the refinery who was spending some of his off-time running errands with his 19-month-old son, Don. "No one's really concerned about layoffs -- at the refinery, at least."

Addams, 34, has worked here 8 years, and hopes to keep the job at which he can make as much as $80,000 a year.

But if he hopes his future is with Exxon Mobil, he wants something a little better for his only child.

"I'd rather he not grow up to do shift work," he said. "I'd rather do the time for him."

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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