Chevron victimises offshore union activist

Submitted by martin on 3 March, 2010 - 12:26 Author: Bob Carnegie

Bob Carnegie, the MUA [Maritime Union of Australia] activist recently removed from a Chevron gas rig operating offshore from Western Australia, spoke to Workers' Liberty about the need for a union campaign against "no-fly" lists operated by companies like Chevron.

Click here for the coverage of this issue by the Sydney-based rank-and-file MUA "Vigilance Bulletin"
Q. The recent case of you being removed from work on the Ensco 7500 gas exploration rig, hired by Chevron and operating offshore from Western Australia, raises a lot of questions beyond the obvious one of your livelihood. What do you think is the most important issue in this case?

A. The most fundamental issue is the civil-liberties issue posed by the "no-fly" policy operated by Chevron. It removes me from the rig without sacking me just by Chevron telling the companies which provide air transport to the offshore field that I am on a "no-fly" list.

The most important thing about the whole dispute is that it has flushed out that Chevron has the "no-fly" list. It was openly admitted by managers from Ensco and from OMS, the labour hire company, in talks in Perth on 22 February.

Chevron is the second largest oil company in the USA, and the fifth largest in the world. Its record in the Amazon is one of the great ecological disasters of the 20th century.

The "no-fly" policy is a secret blacklist. Any worker who has an argument with a Chevron employee about anything can find themselves on the "no-fly" list - without charges, without a hearing, without an appeal, without even any formal notification. If the unions don't fight this "no-fly" list, it will make union organisation on the job almost impossible.

The unions should be mounting a large public and industrial campaign against the "no-fly" list now, right at the start of the Gorgon project. They should also mount a legal challenge to it. Prima facie it is a secondary boycott.

They should use the issue as a tool to pressure the Labor government on expanding workers' and union delegates' rights in workplaces, to something nearer the rights that French workers, for example, have. If Labor wants to do it, it can easily legislate improvements, because they will have the Greens' support in the Senate.

In the British sector of the North Sea, according to Blowout, the journal of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee (the offshore workers' union), employers have frequently used similar policies, known as "NRB" ("not required back"). But Blowout also reports that the OILC has had some success in challenging "NRB" policies in the courts.

I don't mind losing my job if it means the start of a real fight against the "no-fly" policy.

Q. Aside from the "no-fly" policy, what other issues do you see as important here?

A. Defence of union delegates. I've had qualified support from my union, the MUA - a little reluctant at first, but once the issue was argued I've had support.

However, in the main, when workers in the offshore oil and gas industry are told that they are "not required back", the union's way of helping is to seek to find them employment elsewhere in the industry. That means that the argument about union organisation being weakened by delegates being "not required back" is constantly being put off.

Some would say that winning reinstatement in such circumstances is just too difficult. My view on that is that you never win every battle. But you have the battle. Through it, workers realise who the class enemy is - and in a relatively high-paid industry like oil and gas, often workers will have a blurred picture of that. And if workers see that the union is prepared to put up a fight, they'll join the organisation, and we will develop unions which are strong enough to win reinstatement.

Q. And safety on the rigs is an issue, too?

A. Yes. That is the primary reason why I have been removed from the rig - because I raised safety issues.

Safety on the rigs, in my opinion, is worse than on construction sites on the mainland. And construction sites are inherently difficult to keep safe, because they change every day. The rigs are a more stable environment, and should be easier to keep safe.

But the management pay scant attention to Australian standards. They think they can override Australian standards by using their own "risk-management analysis".Using the "DuPont Safety System", they try to shift the responsibility for safety to the workers, and make workers spy on other workers.

Why is safety poor? Because safety costs a fortune. There is tremendous pressure not to stop or delay any job, because the financial costs of doing that are huge compared to other industries. The Ensco 7500 rig costs Chevron $75,000 an hour, and Chevron loses $75,000 if rig operations are held up for even one hour. Unlike on a construction site or in a factory, where usually one section can be halted without losses elsewhere, the rig is a much more integrated operation, so it is more likely that stopping one job will stop everything.

Safety reps have less security than in other industries. Almost every worker on the rig is a casual of some sort. If a safety rep puts a prohibition on anything, or speaks contrary to company safety policy, they are likely to face "NRB". I've explained this to officials from NOPSA [National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority, the government's official safety-monitoring agency], and they agreed it is a problem.

NOPSA does inspect the rigs. It came to the Ensco 7500 on 17-18 January. The NOPSA officials gave us a good hearing. But NOPSA very rarely utilises its powers to stop jobs.

The unions should agitate to make NOPSA far more accountable. Although it is a government body, it is funded by the offshore oil and gas industry. It tends to be less aggressive with employers than other government departments.

The unions should be campaigning for Australia's offshore oil and gas industry to be raised to the safety standards of the Norwegian sector of the North Sea oilfield, or at the very least of the British sector. But the high levels of non-unionisation on the rigs will be a problem in winning that campaign, unless they can be remedied.

Q. Leaving aside the question of safety, what are conditions on the rigs like as regards being livable for the workers?

A. The living conditions on the Ensco 7500 are worse than in any maximum security prison I've encountered in Australia. You live four to a cabin, eight to a toilet and a shower, with incessant noise, and with no recreation area.

When you're not actually working, you can sit in the mess room, which holds about 70 people, and watch TV, or lie in your cabin, unless someone else in the cabin is trying to sleep. The vessel could not work in the Norwegian or British sectors of the North Sea because it doesn't meet the minimum accommodation standards there. It's a question whether the vessel should even have been allowed to come to Australia with such atrocious conditions, though objections would have put the unions in an invidious position, because otherwise the rig would have been brought here and operated with all non-union labour.

The unions should lobby governments intensively for a regulatory framework on the north-west shelf and in the Bass Straits which lays down accommodation conditions comparable to the Norwegian sector - or at least to the British sector - of the North Sea. There should at least be some quiet space where you can read a book or have a bit of time to yourself.

Q. The offshore oil and gas industry is a relatively new industry. It is expanding fast. Unions whose old bastions of organisation are shrinking due to industrial change need to organise in such sectors, and the MUA and AWU have put resources into organising offshore. It is an area where strong union organisation could have huge economic clout, but with difficulties not found elsewhere. Do you think some fresh thinking is needed in the union movement about organising in this sector?

A. The rank and file on the rig have been absolutely steadfast. When the dispute over my removal occurred on the rig, for the two days 20 and 21 February, there was confusion on the vessel over the role of other workers who wanted to support the dispute.

From the information I've had, both the AWU and the MUA officials were deeply concerned about facing legal action for a "secondary boycott" should anyone else other than the MUA members participate in the dispute.

My concern about that is that solidarity is the soul of trade-unionism. The sanctity of the picket line, and the principle that no trade-unionist does the work of another trade-unionist on strike, are far more important than any perceived threats of the employer taking action on "secondary boycott" grounds.

What does a union amount to, if workers forget the sanctity of the picket line?

I think workers will respond to aggressive, militant attempts to organise their industry by unions which are prepared to represent them and to fight beside them on all the issues - not just pay, but also safety, living conditions on the rigs, and job security. Meek trade-union organising which relies on collaboration between the unions and the employer may deliver some union membership in the first instance, but is ultimately doomed. It is up to the MUA-AWU alliance to decide which path it will take.

The first step has to be to organise the rig workers directly employed by the rig companies such as Ensco, Maersk, BHP, etc. The unions have to be prepared to push the envelope with regard to getting full access for union organisers to be able to frequent the rigs. At present an effective way to stop union organisation is for the companies to make it difficult for union organisers to get access.

If winning access means that these companies have to be placed under pressure in other areas, then that is what has to be done. Nearly all these companies are very image-conscious. Protests outside their offices in city centres would be enormously effective.

The unions should organise regular monthly members' meetings ashore, and regular meetings on each rig, at least once in every tour of duty. When negotiating collective agreements, the unions should insist on including strict wording to deal with "NRB" policies.

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