The choice for thousands of union workers at Royal Dutch Shell’s petrochemical plant in Beaver County was clear Tuesday: Either stand in a giant hall waiting for President Donald Trump to speak or take the day off with no pay.
“Your attendance is not mandatory,” said the rules that one contractor relayed to employees, summarizing points from a memo that Shell sent to union leaders a day ahead of the visit to the $6 billion construction site. But only those who showed up at 7 a.m., scanned their ID cards, and prepared to stand for hours — through lunch but without lunch — would be paid.
“NO SCAN, NO PAY,” a supervisor for that contractor wrote.
That company and scores of other contractors on site and their labor employees all have their own contracts with Shell. Several said the contracts stipulate that to get paid, workers must be onsite.
Those who decided not to come to the site for the event would have an excused but non-paid absence, the company said, and would not qualify for overtime pay on Friday.
Shell spokesman Ray Fisher explained that the workers onsite have a 56-hour workweek, with 16 hours of overtime built in. That means those workers who attended Mr. Trump’s speech and showed up for work Friday, meeting the overtime threshold, were being paid at a rate of time and a half, while those who didn’t go to hear the president were being paid the regular rate, despite the fact that both groups did not do work on the site Tuesday.
“This is just what Shell wanted to do and we went along with it,” said Ken Broadbent, business manager for Steamfitters local 449. The local has 2,400 workers on the site and Mr. Broadbent said he would not “bad rap about it one way or another.”
“We’re glad to have the jobs. We’re glad to have the project built,” he said. “The president is the president whether we like him or dislike him. We respect him for the title.”
Mr. Broadbent said anyone who did not want to show up to work that day was free to do so. “This is America,” he said.
One union leader reached Friday who asked not to be named because he did not want to make trouble for his workers said one day of work might amount to about $700 in pay, benefits and a per diem payment that out-of-town workers receive.
Mr. Fisher said Friday that “this was treated as a paid training day with a guest speaker who happened to be the president.”
He said workers engaged in “safety training and other activities” in the morning.
“It’s not uncommon for us to shut down the site for quarterly visits from VIPs — popular sports figures like Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris have visited the site to engage with workers and to share inspirational messages. Shell/Penske NASCAR driver Joey Logano was another guest at the site,” Mr. Fisher said.
Several union leaders said they were not consulted about the arrangement before it was sent out.
The contractor’s talking points, preparing his workers for the event read:
“No yelling, shouting, protesting or anything viewed as resistance will be tolerated at the event. An underlying theme of the event is to promote good will from the unions. Your building trades leaders and jobs stewards have agreed to this.”
Mr. Trump received a generally warm and at times cheerful welcome at Shell, where he praised natural gas extraction in Appalachia and talked about his political grievances and name-called some opponents.
Shell will process natural gas into plastic pellets when the plant is operational.
The president also called out union leadership, which Shell had requested to be in attendance.
“I’m going to speak to some of your union leaders to say, ‘I hope you’re going to support Trump.’ OK?” he said. “And if they don’t, vote them the hell out of office because they’re not doing their job.”
More than a dozen unions work at the Shell site, the largest construction project in the state.