Over the last year one of the most important organising drivers in the history of the British trade union movement has been taking place.
A rank and file body, the Oil Industry Liaison Committee, has been fighting a long guerilla war to unionise the North Sea oil rigs and win decent health and safety provision.
A series of strikes last summer won some gains on pay and helped build organisation. This year rig workers plan to really hammer the bosses.
An overtime ban is spreading across the oil fields. Over 20 installations are affected so far, involving 4000 workers, union and non-union alike. The overtime ban is set to escalate into a series of strikes.
The rig workers are fighting to cut the terrible long hours they are forced to work. At present they are expected to work 15 hour shifts and compulsory overtime.
The total for rig workers often goes above 3000 hours a year. Onshore industrial workers do an average of 1840 hours per year.
The TGWU and the National Union of Seamen are demanding:
- Restriction of the basic hours of daily work to 12.
- Time and a half for all hours worked after 12 and for public holidays.
Safety is another key issue. Despite the tragic death of 167 workers in the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, little has changed in the North Sea. The unions are demanding health and safety committees, with elected health and safety reps at all drilling units.
Another element in the rig workers' campaign is a push for decent wages to compensate for the isolation and privations of life on the rigs.
The backbone of the rig workers' campaign has been provided by the rank and file activists of the Liaison Committee.
The produce a newspaper, Blow Out, written by and for rig workers themselves. The paper helps keep workers informed of the committee's activities and to forge bonds of solidarity.
Union organisation, which was strongest among construction and engineering workers, has now spread to include most workers. Advances have been won in the catering sector, where an 18 per cent wage deal was won earlier this year.
The weakest spot on the union side is among the crews of the support vessels, where the National Union of Seamen was decimated as a consequence of the P&O strike in 1988.
Overall, though, the rig workers look to be in a strong position. The bosses look vulnerable and divided.
Clem Cook, chair of the oil contractors, has been quoted as saying that the oil companies will face a lot of trouble this summer unless there is an agreement with the liaison committee.
Now is the time to fight.