Felipe Venegas wears full-body personal protective equipment—and moves carefully and methodically even on the hottest days—because he processes chemicals with the potential to ignite and explode in a heartbeat.
Venegas and his co-workers at Nouryon in La Porte, Texas, put their lives on the line to supply the nation’s need for coatings, cleaning solutions, and many other essential products.
Yet the company arbitrarily axed their bonuses in 2022 even as bosses continued pocketing their own premium pay for the workforce’s outstanding safety and production record.
It was one more kick in the gut for Venegas and his colleagues, who voted in February to unionize and join the growing numbers of Americans who are harnessing collective power to build better lives. Now, they’re in the process of bargaining their first contract.
Union election petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board soared in the wake of the pandemic as workers in manufacturing, energy, retail, and many other industries organized to level the playing field and win their fair share. Workers at thousands of workplaces, including the Nouryon complex in La Porte, Texas, began forming unions in 2023 alone.
“I just felt we had to do something different,” recalled Venegas, a production operator at Nouryon for 15 years who led several dozen co-workers in their successful drive to become members of the United Steelworkers (USW). “We didn’t see a future. We’re finding it harder to stay in the middle class.”
Workers at Nouryon faced the same quandary as millions of other struggling Americans. Instead of moving ahead, they kept falling further behind without a union, Venegas said, citing paltry wage increases, a lackluster retirement plan, and other mistreatment at Nouryon, a multibillion-dollar global company that’s co-owned by the Carlyle Group, one of the biggest investment firms in the world.
Nouryon posts whopping revenue on workers’ backs, and the Carlyle Group’s founders appear on Forbes’s real-time list of billionaires. Meanwhile, Venegas and others at the La Porte plant struggle to pay for their families’ medical care.
“It’s horrible,” Venegas said of the company’s health care plan, which requires hefty premium contributions and deductibles even though the physical nature of the job takes a heavy toll on workers’ bodies. “You have to pay 100 percent before you reach your deductible. My deductible is like $5,000.”
After exhausting shifts, some workers moonlight as Uber drivers or in other kinds of second jobs, he added, noting it became more difficult to make ends meet after the company’s decision to cut bonuses for workers but keep paying them to managers.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it? We get nothing. We respond to incidents, and they sit in the administration building, tucked away,” said Venegas, one of many workers trained as firefighters and first responders at the plant.
Venegas experienced the union difference firsthand while previously working at a USW-represented oil refinery in Deer Park, Texas. He related the benefits of USW membership to his co-workers at Nouryon and quickly built support for the organizing effort there.
“It’s the pathway to the middle class,” observed Venegas.
Unions not only deliver wage growth, quality benefits, and retirement security for members but sick leave, predictable shift scheduling, and other quality-of-life enhancements, according to a new report from the U.S. Treasury Department that cites labor’s role in growing economic equality.
By fighting for fairness, the researchers added, unions stamp out discrimination, favoritism, and pay disparities tied to gender and race. Well-compensated union workers, in turn, support small businesses, schools, and other amenities needed to sustain strong communities.
All of this explains why public support for unions surged to record levels in recent years and why, according to a recent Gallup poll, Americans want to see workers exercise even greater collective power in coming years.
“We’re setting up a better future for everybody,” declared Colton Carr, who in October 2023 led seven co-workers at the Global marine terminal in South Portland, Maine, in a unanimous vote to join the USW.
The group is seeking better pay, safer working conditions, and a seat at the table, among other improvements, in a first contract that they believe will not only provide job security for generations of workers but help ensure the terminal’s continued viability.
“You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. If you’re not union, you’re kind of flying down the road at 120 mph without a seatbelt. You need some protection,” Carr explained.
He and his co-workers off-load oil and other products that ships carry to the terminal on Casco Bay and then re-load the materials onto customers’ trucks.
“I like the job,” Carr added. “I like my co-workers. I like the environment. It’s a place I want to be long-term.”
But while Global profits from the workers’ work ethic and dedication, it provides little in return. “It’s clear we’re just a number,” he said, referring to the need for a union to “equal out the power.”
As he and his colleagues considered unionizing, they drew inspiration from the current wave of union victories, including the vote of 1,400 Blue Bird bus company workers in Fort Valley, Georgia, to join the USW in 2023. Now the workers at Global hope to set their own example for others to emulate.
“Businesses are watching. They know what’s going on,” Carr said of the union wave. “The more wins, the better for everyone.”
“We’re trailblazers,” he continued. “I’m super pumped to be part of this.”