Norco businesses are cutting hours, may be forced to layoff employees if strike lingers

Gre’Aud Fine Foods in Norco
A smaller lunch crowd at Gre’Aud Fine Foods in Norco

A steady stream of workers trickled in at the deli counter of Gre’aud’s Fine Foods for a plate lunch buffet, but the line has gotten much shorter since more than 500 United Steelworker union workers at the Norco Manufacturing Complex went on strike nearly two weeks ago.

The grocery store, nestled among the numerous businesses lining Apple Street, is in downtown Norco, a town with a history so intertwined with the petrochemical industry that its own name is an acronym for the New Orleans Refining Co. (NORCO). The community’s name, formerly known as Sellers after a wealthy family there, changed in 1911 when the land was purchased by Royal Dutch/Shell Oil and the name became Norco sometime around 1926.

A maze of silver and white plant pipelines woven into the community itself is testimony to the area’s symbiotic relationship with industry petrochemical giants like Motiva, Shell and Valero in the River Region.

But since the strike, Gre’aud’s daily buffet Motiva-Shell crowd of an estimated 100 workers is gone, said store Manager Stanley Burkhardt. Other workers are still coming there, but the thinner crowd shows the walkout has hurt lunch business.

Just up the road, Motiva-Shell union workers are picketing at the Shell plant entrance, the first nationwide oil refinery strike in more than 30 years.

In Louisiana, Brent Petit, local United Steelworkers 750 president, said the strike officially started at 11:30 p.m. Feb. 21. Nationwide, union talks began with Shell Oil Co. in January, but failed to reach a compromise as the strike spread over 12 oil refineries. Petit said union workers at the Norco and Convent plants had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike late last year.

Of Norco Manufacturing Complex’s 1,175 employees, 548 of them are union workers. Statewide, about 800 union workers joined the strike nationally that United Steelworker representatives say is about inadequate staffing, worker fatigue and safety issues, which the industry has denied. Shell and union workers were expected to return to the negotiating table by March 4, according to news reports.

“Word on the street is it’ll be a four-month strike and that won’t be good,” Burkhardt said. Since the strike is being negotiated somewhere else, he added, there’s no choice but to go with the flow.

At neighboring Lovecchio’s Deli, also on Apple Street, Sondra Keegan said the strike has cost her customers.“Most of my business is all the workers from the plants and I don’t see any of them today,” Keegan said. “We’re used to running at top speed over here for lunch.”

This is a big difference from the 50 to 100 workers who typically come to her deli in a day, and it’s already required they cut hours. If the strike lingers, Keegan’s husband, Mike, said they might have to let employees go.Workers are also complaining about lower hours and fewer tips at El Gato Negro, a Mexican restaurant and bar in Destrehan, according to Manager Jose Almendares. Bar business is also down.

“We used to have 1,000 to 1,500 lunches and now it’s around 500,” Almendares said of getting a lot of Motiva worker business. “We’re filling four to five tables now tops.”

If the strike lingers, he’s equally concerned about the possibility of having to cut the hours of his 10 employees. “It’s upsetting on both parts where the employees get the benefits they deserve and the employees are demanding by force by not going to work.” Almendares observed about the strike. “There’s always two sides to the story.”

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