Oil: a fight for recognition

Submitted by Janine on 20 July, 1989 - 2:14

A wave of unofficial strikes have been sweeping oil platforms in the North Sea over the last two months.

The dispute over safety, pay and conditions is fast turning into a battle for union recognition throughout the industry.

The strikes are organised by an unofficial rank and file body - the Oil Industry Liaison Committee, or OIL, but they have the tacit support of local union leaders.

The disputes began with contract workers who want guaranteed pay and conditions under the Offshore Construction Agreement. At present bosses cancel the agreement when rigs hook up and begin oil production.

Most construction workers are employed by contractors, on worse conditions than permanent staff and up to £100 a week less pay. Constructors Press Offshore won a bid for two million man hours in the BP Forties field, but refused to pay higher rates because the field was already on stream. A dispute started and other issues quickly arose.

The strikers demanded union safety reps, inclusion under Health and Safety legislation, and the Health and Safety Executive (instead of the Department of Energy) to monitor safety. There are also calls for a single industry-wide union.

The strikes spread to other platforms in the Forties field and to Shell's Alpha Platform, Brent Charlie and Brent Delta structures.

When management brought in scab labour a sit in began at the Safe Felicia flotel on 20 June.

Management tried to stop the spread of strikes by cutting off communications between platforms.

Oil workers' wives demonstrated at both BP and Shell's Aberdeen HQs, demanding to be able to talk to their husbands. They demanded reassurance about safety in the industry.

An indefinite strike was called on 4 July by 350 men on five platforms in BP's Forties field after management ratted on a back-to-work formula. Two days later, on the anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, an estimated 10,000 staged stoppages to commemorate the victims. This time onshore workers stopped work too, at Dundee, Grampian and Grangemouth.

Now Mobil and Shell contractors have offered rises in pay. And the Shell deal included some union recognition. This led to the OIL committee calling for a return to work for further talks.

But the strikes were called off without management giving any firm commitments. Contracting bosses interpreted this as a sign of weakness. And sure enough, the deadline (last Tuesday, 11 July) set by the OIL committee passed without them making concessions.

A mass meeting of shop stewards in Glasgow backed further action if management refused to budge - and extended their deadline until the end of the week.

Now it looks likely that more strikes will be called - probably on the model of the last series of strikes every few days. A women's support group has been set up in Aberdeen to boost the struggle. Meanwhile contracting bosses have held a series of propaganda meetings on shore to ty and stop further action.

As one strike organiser said, the fight is about much, much more than pay. It is about a national agreement and safety in the industry. And the battle for control over safety inevitably leads to one of union recognition - a battle we can expect to continue until management gives in.