(Adds increase in operators sought by Exxon, paragraph 10)
HOUSTON, April 28 (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp and the United Steelworkers union (USW) have agreed to an orderly transfer of the company’s Beaumont, Texas, refinery to temporary workers if a threatened lockout begins on Saturday, according to people familiar with the talks.
The two sides have been in negotiations since January but have been unable to agree on a new union labor contract for the plant, Exxon’s third-largest U.S. refinery by capacity.
If Exxon locks out the union workers, it would be the first time since 1988 that the Beaumont plant workers have gone off the job in a labour dispute.
Exxon told refinery workers in an email that it wants the union to hold a vote on its latest offer, according to an email viewed by Reuters. It has declined to hold further talks without the vote, the people said.
“We hope the union allows employees to vote on our offer and reach an agreement before May 1,” Exxon spokeswoman Julie King said.
Neither side has disclosed details of the proposals for the contract that will replace a six-year pact reached in 2015.
The union rejected Exxon’s last proposal and counter offered with a one-year extension. After that rejection, Exxon gave the union notice it planned to lock out hourly employees on Saturday.
USW Local 13-243 represents 650 hourly workers at the 369,024 barrel-per-day (bpd) oil refinery and adjoining lubricants blending and packaging plant.
Exxon has trained managers and engineers from around the United States to operate refinery units. It plans to bring in temporary replacement workers on a unit-by-unit basis beginning Saturday, according to people familiar with the talks.
The oil company this week began soliciting former employees and others with at least two years’ experience as process operators to staff units between May 10 and August.
Exxon initially said it was seeking 40 temporary operators but on Wednesday said it was looking for 60 operators, according to emails seen by Reuters.
USW members will brief the replacement workers on the status of each unit’s operation before leaving the refinery, the people said.
Exxon has placed multiple large trailers to house the temporary workers, according to the sources. The company has also made space for the workers to park personal travel trailers at the refinery.
The temporary workers will work within the refinery in 12-hour shifts for two weeks at a time and then have two weeks off, according to the sources. (Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by David Gregorio and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)