The nearly 60,000 refinery workers on strike against the nation's oil industry would have been better off had they been bakery employes.
"If it were your local bakery on strike and there was no bread, you'd feel it," said the spokesman for Standard Oil of Indiana. "We're certainly not trying to rub it in, but no one is feeling this strike and, unquestionably, that's a disadvantage for the union."
Even the leaders of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, who called the strike Jan. 8 in a dispute over wage, vacation and health care benefits, admit that the industry spokesman has a point.
The strike caused no gasoline lines at filling stations, nor has it halted the flow of home heating oil. It has not even accelerated oil price increases, which, like the refineries, seem quite capable of moving along without the workers.
The basic reason is automation. The estimated 100 companies -- majors and minors -- affected by the strike are highly automated operations that, most industry spokesmen say, can operate indefinitely on a reduced work force.
Standard Oil, which has an estimated 4,000 OCAW workers out on strike, is an example.
The company has been running its affected refineries with supervisory personnel working 12-hour shifts six days a week. Other companies, like Gulf Oil Corp., have had supervisors working 12-hour shifts seven days a week since the strike began.
"It's tiring, but it's not like digging ditches and it's not totally exhausting," said the Standard spokesman.
A milder winter and conservation by motorists have also helped the industry move smoothly through its first nationwide strike in 11 years.
Slack demand has left many refineries with bloated home fuel reserves and has allowed many others to run at 75 percent to 80 percent of capacity.
On the surface, the issues for the union and many of their followers are matters of pride -- "getting even" for being "played suckers" last year when they accepted a wage increase close to the administration's 7 percent guideline, and showing the industry that it really needs people to run its machines.
"The thing is that the average OCAW worker who took an 8 percent increase last year watched his company take double and triple digit profits," said James G. (Jerry) Archuleta, the union spokesman.
The refinery workers were scheduled for a 5 percent raise this year under a two-year contract signed in 1979. However, under a reopener clause in the contract, the union is demanding what it calls a "substantial hourly pay raise" (up to $1 more per hour over the current average of $9.55) and major increased in health care and vacation benefits.
Yesterday, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union said it has reached agreement with a small oil refinery in Montana, bringing to 20 the number of independent refineries that have settled with the union in its nine-week strike.