In freezing cold, striking U.S. refinery workers chop wood for fire

By Erwin Seba WHITING, Ind. (Reuters) - On the icy shores of Lake Michigan, striking workers fan fires in old oil barrels near BP Plc's hulking Whiting refinery, trying to stay warm and united as they push for a new contract to end the biggest U.S. refinery walkout in 35 years. But there is little sign the strike, now in its sixth week, will end anytime soon as face-to-face negotiations between the United Steelworkers union (USW) and oil companies resumed on Monday after a nearly two week hiatus. Dave Copple, who has worked for 35 years at BP's 413,500 barrel-per-day (bpd) plant in Whiting, Indiana, said he worries oil companies want to test workers' resolve by letting the strike drag on and refusing to grant pay increases and safety assurances demanded by the USW. "I think they are trying to break the union," Copple said as he stood next to a fire barrel inside a triangle-shaped shelter made of chain link fence and plastic tarps. BP said it has no interest in breaking the union or prolonging the strike, only in reaching a fair deal that ensures safe and competitive operations. The shelter, called "Fort Stoppage," sits 100 feet (30.5 meters) from the shore of Lake Michigan, much of which froze over in February, the coldest since 1875, when the average temperature was 14.6 Fahrenheit (minus 9.7 Celsius), according to U.S. National Weather Service. "We've been here every second since we were called out," said Copple, wearing five layers of clothing. The USW's national leadership told the nearly 1,100 members of USW Local 7-1 on Feb. 8 to walk off their jobs at Whiting as talks stalled between the union and Shell. The oil industry's lead negotiator, Shell Oil Co, the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, said it wants to reach a "mutually satisfactory agreement." The national strike, which began on Feb. 1 has spread to include 15 plants, 12 of which are refineries that account for one-fifth of U.S. capacity. Local 7-1 has set up a wood-chopping unit, called "the Woodchuck Crew" a few blocks from the refinery to provide fuel for the fires. "Our guys work out in this weather every day," said USW local 7-1 President Dave Danko. "That takes guts." While talks at the national level have stalled, talks on the local issues with BP have been moving slowly, Danko said. (Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Terry Wade and Lisa Shumaker)