OILC: a history lesson in organising offshore

Submitted by Off The Rails on 22 September, 2008 - 11:30

This year, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) merged into RMT. It is twenty years since the tragedy that prompted the OILC to form.

On 6 July 1988, 167 workers died in a fire on the Piper Alpha oil rig. Later the same year, a gas explosion on the Ocean Odyssey killed a man. It was the third gas explosion in the North Sea in less than 3 months.

The root cause of these deaths? Capitalism's insatiable thirst for profits and contempt for the safety of the workers who produce those profits. In the words of one oil consultant, companies "cannot afford to be over-extravagant on safety".

In the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster, workers set up the OILC, which was open to all workers, whichever existing union (there were eight) they supported. OILC held meetings of hundreds of workers, who raised complaints of cutbacks, neglect of safety, 'tidy ups' before safety inspectors arrived and threats to workers who report breaches of safety. Oil companies used contract labour to drive down wages and conditions and to exclude union organisation.

The following year, 1989, workers staged unofficial strikes and work-to-rules on platforms across the North Sea, demanding guaranteed pay and conditions under the Offshore Construction Agreement; union safety reps' inclusion under Health and Safety legislation, and the Health and Safety Executive (instead of the Department of Energy) to monitor safety. The strikes were organised by the OILC, but had the tacit support of local union leaders, and fast became a battle for union recognition.

As the strikes spread, management tried to stop them by cutting off communications between platforms. Oil workers' wives protested at BP and Shell's Aberdeen HQs, demanding to be able to talk to their husbands and reassurance about safety. A women's support group was set up in Aberdeen. On the anniversary of Piper Alpha, 10,000 workers staged stoppages to commemorate the victims. This time onshore workers stopped work too.

The strikes won some gains on pay and helped build organisation, and OILC followed them up with a long guerilla war to unionise the North Sea oil rigs and win decent health and safety provision.

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In 1990, an overtime ban spread across the oilfields, with workers, union and non-union alike, fighting to cut their terrible long hours (15-hour shifts and compulsory overtime) and for decent wages.

OILC produced a newspaper, BlowOut, written by and for rig workers, which helped keep workers informed of the committee's activities and to forge bonds of solidarity.
By August, workers at 74 offshore installations were striking, and the fight had onshore. OILC’s Ronnie McDonald explained their strategy: “Planning has been key to these strikes. Obviously the very nature of the business is that the men are isolated out there on platforms; then they come ashore, and scatter to the four winds ... we tackled that by regular mass meetings ... Glasgow, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Aberdeen, Dundee, Liverpool. ... Then we looked at the legal situation and put together a set of tactics that would be effective and sustainable. Hence the offshore sit-in ... The OILC standing committee is made up of the offshore workers who want to progress this fight and are committed to actually doing something practical ... We've a completely ad hoc organisation and have no bureaucracy... The North Sea will never be the same again.”

In September 1990, OILC held a strike in protest at AMOCO's safety record, and RMT offshore catering workers voted for all-out strike action.

The unions planned a ballot for recognition, while OILC insisted that the reinstatement of the 4,000 workers sacked for striking was a precondition for any talks. The promised ballot never happened.

The oil workers received vital solidarity for their ongoing unofficial action. Trade unionists from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Holland pledged support. The OILC Women's Support Groups held sit-Ins, occupations and lobbies of oil companies and raised money for the hardship fund.

But less was forthcoming from the TUC. One worker who went to its Congress asking for support reported that “They don't want to look at us. They just walk past us like we're not here. All I see is fat cats with briefcases.”

An OILC activist outlined the issues: "I get £300 a week for one of the most dangerous jobs around. So far 500 of us have died. The multinationals' propaganda goes on about 'high risk and high reward', but that's a load of rubbish ... Safety risks are built into the rigs to save money and increase profits. Even the helicopters which take us to the rigs are death-traps.”

By 1991, offshore workers were debating the idea of a new union for offshore workers. Union recognition and decent health and safety provision had still not been won. The Gulf War encouraged many national trade union officials to postpone the North Sea recognition fight, frightened of appearing unpatriotic. This problem was compounded by divisions among national union officials and rumours of single-union and no-strike deals being cooked up.

While OILC leaders were rightly concerned not to isolate the offshore workers from the official trade union movement, the behaviour of the official unions themselves eventually made OILC’s independence inevitable.

In order to overcome the sectionalism that traditionally weakened the unions in the North Sea, OILC for a long time argued for a united 'single table' approach to bargaining. But in March 1991, union officials signed a dreadful new 'hook up' agreement with the bosses, over the heads of the workers.

Rank-and-file anger boiled over, and in the autumn, OILC declared itself an independent trade union and gained official certification.

They built the new union through solid organisation and concentrating on the pay, conditions and safety issues that mattered to offshore workers. They received support from OFS, Norway's leading offshore union.

OILC was denounced by the same union bureaucrats who had forced them to take this step, and also by the Morning Star. But it was supported by offshore workers, thousands of whom signed up for the OILC which had, after all, for the last three years provided the organisation and leadership which the official unions had so tragically lacked.

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